(TNS) -- Scientists at UC Berkeley began mobilizing a global smartphone network Friday to detect earthquakes and someday send out life-saving early warnings before dangerous temblors shake the distant ground.
In a crowdsourcing program called “MyShake,” the scientists released the first quake-detecting mobile app for Android phones, available free on Google Play, and said a second app for Apple iPhones will be available soon.
The MyShake app has been tested with 300 volunteer smartphone users across an area of nearly 4,000 square miles, and it showed that the quake-detection system performed well, said Richard M. Allen, director of UC Berkeley’s Seismological Laboratory who is leading the project.
“But we would need many more than that in the real world,” he said. “About 3,000 would be a good number, and the system will always be better the more phones there are participating.”
The next step, he said, is to refine the system to send out alerts seconds to minutes before dangerous seismic waves shake the ground.
Modern mobile phones contain built-in motion sensors called accelerometers that can detect a phone’s smallest vibrations. The phones also contain GPS systems that activate periodically to determine their precise location.
When an earthquake ruptures the ground, smartphones with the MyShake app can sense the first shaking, analyze it, and instantly relay the information to a specialized cloud server that collects it from other phones in the system and determines the quake’s magnitude, Allen said.
A ground-based early-warning network called ShakeAlert is being developed and tested with hundreds of traditional seismic stations in California and the Pacific Northwest.
“MyShake won’t replace traditional seismic networks for quake detection,” Allen said. “But we think it can make earthquake early warnings faster and more accurately in areas that do have a traditional seismic network, and could provide life-saving early warning in countries that experience many destructive earthquakes but have very few conventional seismic detectors.”
Crowdsourced networks of mobile phones could prove to be the only option for many quake-prone regions of the world where seismic stations are rare and populations are dense, but smartphones are widely used, Allen said.
For example, Allen noted that an estimated 1.6 billion mobile phones are now in use around the world, and more than 80 percent of them run on the Android operating system. In Nepal alone, he said, some 6 million smartphones are in use and 600,000 of them are in Kathmandu, the nation’s densely populated capital.
A violent earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 struck there in April, killing more than 8,000 people. Its epicenter was some 50 miles from Kathmandu.
“There are hardly any conventional seismic stations in the region there,” Allen said, “but a network of mobile phones in full operation would have detected that quake and, based on its distance from the capital, the network would have provided 20 seconds of early warning that could have saved many lives.”
At the UC Berkeley seismology lab that Allen directs, graduate student Qingkai Kong developed the first quake detection algorithm for MyShake smartphones and tested its ability in the strong vibrations produced by 45 simulated earthquakes at the university’s large seismic shake table at the Richmond Field Station.
“This cutting-edge research will transform seismology,” Kong said. “Using smartphones with low-cost sensors will give us a really good, dense network in the future.”
Allen announced the MyShake project Friday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington. A report on its progress is published in the journal Science Advances.
Developing the MyShake system is supported by a $1 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and other essential algorithms were developed by Silicon Valley programmers at the Deutsche Telekom Innovation Center in Mountain View.
Another system in works
“We do telephones, we write code, and now we do seismology,” said Louis Schreier, vice president of the center who is also a co-author of the report in Science Advances.
Another system linking smartphones to dangerous earthquake detection and early warning of ground shaking is being developed by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, and early versions are being tested in Chile.
©2016 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.