Smartphone chip is able to accurately detect earthquakes

If you have ever pounded your way through a particularly hard workout on your smartphone’s fitness pedometer, or furiously tilted the screen on motion-based mobile games like Temple Run, you would have experienced the same mobile technology that can detect earthquakes of magnitude five and upwards on the Richter scale.

Known as MEM accelerators, these chips are used to measure acceleration and orientation and are commonly found in laptops and smartphones. Their ability to sense sudden movement intrigued Seismologists from the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, who wanted to know whether the tiny sensor could also reliably detect ground motion caused by earthquakes.

Using the LIS331DLH chip found in both the iPhone 4 and iPhone 5, the ensuing experiments compared the MEMS accelerometer to the EpiSensor EST force balance accelerometer – the seismometer currently used to detect earthquake vibrations. Scientists found that the iPhone chip had “excellent frequency and phase response, comparable with that of some standard FBA accelerometers used in strong motion seismology”, able to detect moderate to strong earthquakes when located near the epicentre.

The chip’s inability to detect tremors below five on the Richter scale has drawn some criticism, but researchers believe the technology will soon be advanced enough to detect quakes of lesser magnitude. Furthermore, the real advantage lies in the smartphone chip’s ability to help deploy emergency response organisations to the hardest hit areas. In a matter of minutes after a major earthquake, GPS location data received from phones by a central command point could detail where the worst tremors have hit, informing emergency services of the areas most in need of aid.

Antonio D’Alessandro, one of the scientists running the experiment, commented that “The number of victims following a strong earthquake depends mainly on the intensity of the 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.”

Of course, the usefulness of this technology in regions where poor income inhibits smartphone sales is limited. Still, the hope is that in the future most mobile devices will be fitted with such a chip, allowing a possible replacement for traditional seismometer networks.

Image Credit: Flickr (mirkazemian)