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Surprising Science

Detecting Earthquake Tremors Using Smartphones

Researchers at the Berkeley Seismic Laboratory are helping to develop a seismometer app that will provide detailed information on who felt what and where.

What’s the Latest Development?

Researchers at the University of California-Berkeley Seismic Laboratory are in the early stages of developing a smartphone app that will record seismic activity and report data back to a central server. The data could also feed directly into an early-warning system such as California’s, and the smartphone itself could issue alerts to its owner and others nearby. The app takes advantage of already-existing built-in sensors, and will ideally improve in sensitivity as smartphone technology advances. As team member Qingkai Kong explains: “Right now, we can only detect earthquakes above about Magnitude 5.0, but with better accelerometers in future smartphones we would hope to detect smaller ones as well.”

What’s the Big Idea?

The team hopes to provide a test app next year to volunteers in the Bay Area, which is home to some of the US’ most active seismic activity. Of course one huge question is: How can the app distinguish such activity from the normal movements — walking, running, driving, and so on — made by a person carrying a smartphone? The research team says it’s developed an almost-foolproof pattern recognition algorithm that subtracts such “human noise” from the data. Given the ubiquity of smartphones, the amount of potential seismic data gathered could save lives.

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