iPhone Accelerometers Could Help Create An Urban Seismic Network
September 30, 2013

Using iPhones As Earthquake Sensors

Michael Harper for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Though we use them mainly for work and play, smartphones are quite good at collecting vast amounts of data. When used in a certain way, the sensors packed inside these mobile devices can paint an accurate picture of our surroundings and, when grouped with data from other smartphones, this picture becomes even clearer.

Now a group of Italian seismologists say the accelerometers tucked inside iPhones could be used to create an urban seismic network to aid in recovery efforts following a strong earthquake.

The Micro-Electro-Mechanical System (MEMS) accelerometers are normally used to adjust the iPhone’s screen orientation. For instance, when looking at a picture in landscape mode, the accelerometer tells the photo to fit the screen. Though Antonino D’Alessandro and Giuseppe D’Anna, both seismologists at Istituto Nazionale di Geosifica e Vulcanologia in Italy, looked specifically at the LIS331DLH MEMS accelerometer in the iPhone, these sensors can be found in other smartphones, laptops, smartwatches and even airbags in cars.

To test their theory that a regular iPhone could be used to detect areas hardest hit by an earthquake, D’Alessandro and D’Anna pit the accelerometer against the EpiSensor ES-T force balance accelerometer produced by Kinemetrics Inc, a common earthquake sensor. They found the iPhone was able to accurately detect moderate to strong earthquakes reaching magnitudes of five or higher on the Richter scale.

When earthquakes hit populated and urban areas, these sensors could be used to create a network which would immediately report motion data and draw a map of precisely where the earthquake hit the hardest. First responders and emergency crews could then use this data to allocate resources for the rescue effort.

Though the iPhone’s accelerometer can’t yet detect lesser earthquakes, it’s nearly 100 percent more likely homes in an urban area will contain a smartphone rather than a bulky, single-purpose EpiSensor ES-T.

D’Alessandra and D’Anna do mention, however, that accelerometer technology is improving all the time, meaning devices could one day soon be able to detect smaller quakes. As more devices are outfitted with these sensors, their proposed network could one day gather an enormous amount of data shortly following a quake. This research will be published in the October issue of the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America.

This research is not only an effective way of collecting data from common sensors, it’s also another example of the forthcoming future of the Internet of Things. This goal aims to create larger networks made of common devices to adapt and react to one another using sensors already built in. For instance, James Robinson of OpenSignal app development group in London recently used the thermometer used to monitor a smartphone’s battery to track the weather. The key to this process is the sheer volume of smartphones being used in the wild. Any smartphone running their app could then report back to a network about their battery temperature. Using clever algorithms, Robinson’s network could one day determine ambient air temperatures and even predict if rain is on its way.