Can Your Smartphone Detect Earthquakes? Check Your iPhone

Collecting accurate, real-time data on earthquakes has always been a problem for seismologists. But a tiny sensor found in smartphones could help fill in the gaps by instantly turning your mobile phone into an earthquake sensor. The chip, originally intended to change the orientation of the screen, can detect earthquakes greater than a magnitude of 5, according to a new study. Known as a Micro-Electro-Mechanical System (MEMS) accelerometer, the sensors measures the rate of acceleration of ground motion and vibration of cars, buildings and installations. MEMS is also used in laptops to detect the motion of falling, and in computer games to sense movement and speed. Antonino D'Alessandro and Giuseppe D'Anna, both seismologists at the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Italy, wanted to see whether the sensor could also reliably detect ground motion caused by earthquakes. They tested the LIS331DLH MEMS accelerometer in an iPhone and compared it to the earthquake sensor EpiSensor ES-T force balance accelerometer. The test showed that the MEMS accelerometers could detect moderate to strong earthquakes, greater than magnitude 5, when located near the epicentre. The researchers believe the technology will soon be advanced enough to detect quakes less than magnitude 5. The real advantage, they say, is the widespread use of mobile phones and laptops that include MEMS technology, making it possible to dramatically increase coverage when strong earthquakes occur. This isn’t the first time that smartphone sensors have been used to detect earthquakes. A few years ago, University of California, Berkeley released the free iShake app which turns your iPhone into an earthquake-measuring device. Any possible earthquake triggers are measured by your phone and instantly streamed back to our University servers for further processing and map generation. ‘The dense network of recorded shaking intensity data, and eventually other information, will have a significant impact on academia, industry, and government,’ said the research team.