Scientists push quake role for smartphones

By Ben Riley-Smith

Data sent from smartphones could help in earthquake rescues. Photo / AP
Data sent from smartphones could help in earthquake rescues. Photo / AP

Smartphones can accurately monitor major earthquakes and could be used to improve the efficiency of rescue operations, new research has found.

Scientists have discovered that a tiny sensor that detects which way a handset is facing and orientates the screen accordingly can also pick up strong vibrations.

The smartphone chip was found to record accurate data on quakes greater than magnitude five when placed close to the epicentre, while smaller quakes were drowned out by the noise of the handset.

However, improvements in technology are likely to bring about more sensitive sensors in the future which could have a dramatic impact on how rescue operations are conducted.

The Micro Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) accelerometer is a chip found in most smartphones and laptops which monitors the rate of acceleration of ground motion as well as vibration of cars and buildings.

Seismologists Giuseppe D'Anna and Antonino D'Alessandro, both of the Istituto Nazionale di Geosifica e Vulcanologia in Italy, wanted to see if the technology could accurately detect ground movements caused by earthquakes.

They tested a version of the chip found in some iPhones, the LIS331DLH MEMS accelerometer, and compared it to the earthquake sensor EpiSensor EST force balance accelerometer.

The pair found that the iPhone chip had "excellent frequency and phase response" while only picking up earthquakes of greater than magnitude five on the Richter scale. The smartphones also had to be close to the centre of the quake.

The authors concluded that given these sensors are in "common use in mobile phones" and are likely to improve in the future, they could be used in rescue operations.

Minutes after a major quake GPS location data from the phones could be sent to a central command point, detailing where the worst tremors were felt and helping determine where emergency services should go.

D'Alessandro said: "The number of victims following a strong earthquake depends mainly on the intensity of shaking and the speed of rescue operations.

"A real-time urban seismic network can drastically reduce casualties in urban areas immediately following a strong earthquake by quickly distributing information about the distribution and intensity of ground shaking."

The researchers believe technological improvements will mean earthquakes less than magnitude five will soon be detected by smartphone chips. Telegraph Group Ltd

- Daily Telegraph UK

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