iPhone earthquake detector fits in your pocket

Want to predict earthquakes with your smartphone?

Well, there’s (almost) an app for that.

Berkeley researchers are interested in turning your iPhone or Android into a pocket-sized seismometer. Though only in initial development, the app could help reduce casualties and save lives — especially in the Bay Area.

Qingkai Kong, a graduate student at the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, told the BBC:

“Nowadays, smartphones carry all sorts of sensors, and we can put these to use in unexpected ways.”

By utilizing a smartphone’s accelerometer (also known as the “motion detector thingy”), the researchers envision a smartphone seismic network that would dial directly into California’s earthquake early warning system.

Current accelerometers can detect earthquakes above 5.0-magnitude, but increasingly sensitive sensors in the future could be set off by smaller quakes, said Kong.

And according to the BBC, even a few seconds’ notice can prove invaluable: It can allow one to find cover, trains to slow or surgeons to finish a delicate procedure.

The one obvious question is how phones will differentiate between regular movement and seismic waves. As expected, the researchers are on top of it. They’ve developed an algorithm that subtracts “human noise” from the data. Kong explained:

“The pattern recognition algorithm sees typical human activities such as walking, running and driving, and we use that information to disengage those activities from the earthquake signal data.”

The team hopes to test the app with volunteers around the Bay next year. If successful, the app couldn’t come at a better time for us peeps living in Quake Country.

According to a 2008 report, the Bay Area has a 31-percent probability of receiving a magnitude 6.7 or great quake within the next few decades.