Your Smartphone Has A Capability You Likely Don’t Know: Sensing Earthquakes

Image credit: Jon Fingas via Flickr Free Use Photos

Image credit: Jon Fingas via Flickr Free Use Photos

Did you know that your modern mid to high end smartphone can detect earthquakes? If you clicked on this article, you likely don’t know this and you are interested how this earthquake sensing works.

This is not recent news but it’s something worth writing about.

Two years ago, seismologists from the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, Giuseppe D’Anna and Antonino D’Alessandro, conducted a study regarding the possibility of using mobile phones in the field of seismology. Their work is contained in the paper “Can Mobile Phones Be Used in Strong Motion Seismology” published in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America.

Which Specific Part of the Smartphone?

Modern smartphones have a multitude of impressive parts that allow them to have various capabilities. What the volcanologists from the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology focused on was the Micro Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) accelerometer. This is something every modern smartphone, tablet computer, and even laptop computers have. It is the chip responsible for automatically changing the orientation of the screen upon measuring a device’s movement across three axes.

The specific MEMS accelerometer used by the duo was the LIS331DLH chip. It is the chip used in the iPhone 4 and iPhone 5.

Image credit:  STMicroelectronics via Chipworks

The LIS331DLH Chip, Image credit: STMicroelectronics via Chipworks

How Was the Study Conducted?

To test the earthquake sensing capabilities of the MEMS accelerometer in the 2013 iPhones, the seismologists used an EpiSensor FBA ES-T seismometer as a point of reference. They then set the phone’s sensor on a vibrating table in a setup usually used in seismological studies. They proceeded to testing the ability of the sensors in detecting different magnitudes of shaking.

The Results

The seismologists found that the MEMS accelerometer chip had “excellent frequency and phase response,” which can be compared to the capability of a standard FBA accelerometer employed in strong motion seismology. However, the chip was not sensitive enough to detect earthquakes with a magnitude of 5 or lower. The good thing is that this is not really that much of a drawback. Magnitude 5 earthquakes rarely cause damages so it can be said that the accelerometers in smartphones can still be useful sensing powerful earthquakes to be able to organize response or rescue efforts.

Applications of the Findings

As mentioned, the ability of smartphone and tablet accelerometers to sense earthquakes can be useful in precisely pinpointing the location of an earthquake to be able to quickly organize and send help. It can help authorities in planning their response to strong earthquakes. Essentially, accelerometer-bearing smartphones (and other devices) can be used in forming a seismic network that can provide real-time data useful in significantly reducing casualties when a strong earthquake strikes especially in urban areas.

It will be good if a solid effort can already be started to make use of smartphones and other devices with accelerometers to form a global network of seismic monitoring. Around a year ago, there was a study published by the Bulletin of the Seismological Study of America (BSSA) stating that mega earthquakes (magnitude 9 or stronger) are to be expected soon as the Pacific’s earthquake zones are estimated to have come in full circle in their 10,000-year cycle.

Not the First Study of Its Kind

It’s worth noting though that this study by seismologists from the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology is not a pioneering study on the subject. Back in 2012, a group of seismologists also published a study in the University of California, Berkeley annual report. Entitled “Using Smartphones to Detect Earthquakes,” the study compared the earthquake sensing abilities of sensors found in the iPhones and Android devices. The researchers reported that the sensors in these smartphones are capable of differentiating movements caused by walking, running, and earthquake tremors.

Earthquake Detection Apps

Many text alert apps and systems have already been developed exploiting the ability of smartphones to sense earthquakes. These are believed to be useful in conducting emergency recovery efforts. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory together with the Qatar Computing Research Institute have also developed an add-on to the App Inventor, which is intended to enable anyone to create emergency response apps capable of pulling real-time data from various sources to help make it easy to find information related to natural disasters.

Image credit: MIT App Inventor

Image credit: MIT App Inventor

Indeed, smartphones are amazing devices. They offer more features or functions that you likely don’t get to use. It is expected that the accelerometers in smartphones will become more sensitive in the future. With the right calibration and privacy/security protocols in place, the smartphones used by billions of people worldwide should be useful not just for communication and information searching but also in seismic monitoring.