Android phones to detect earthquakes: Feature rolled out in California

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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Google’s Android phones can now detect earthquakes around the world and provide data that could potentially give billions of users precious seconds of notice of a nearby tremor, with an alarm feature rolling out in California first.

Japan, Mexico, and California are already using land-based sensors to generate warnings aimed at reducing injury and property damage by giving people time to move away from the epicenter of an earthquake to protect themselves.

If Google’s detection and alerting approaches prove effective, alerts will reach more people, including Indonesia and other developing countries that have few traditional sensors.

Seismology experts consulted by Google said turning smartphones into mini-seismographs was a major step forward, as it has the potential to give earthquake alerts wherever there are smartphones.

Google’s system originated from a week-long session four and a half years ago to assess whether car crashes, earthquakes and tornadoes could be detected by the accelerometers in phones, said Marc Stogaitis, a principal software engineer.

Accelerometers are sensors that monitor direction and motion force and are used mainly to decide if a user holds a phone in landscape or portrait mode.

The company analyzed historical readings of the accelerometer during earthquakes and found they might offer up to one-minute warning to certain users.

Apparently, Android phones can currently distinguish earthquakes from thunder-induced vibrations, or the device dropping only when it is on a charge.

Those expecting to encounter heavy shaking will hear a loud dinging and see full-screen advice to drop, cover, and hold on. Those further away will receive a smaller warning designed not to wake them out of their sleep, while people too close to being alerted would receive post-quake safety information, such as checking the gas valves.

Alerts will be given for earthquakes of magnitude 4.5 or greater, and no download of the app is needed.

The program won’t operate in regions where Google’s Play Services app is blocked, including China.

Google plans to issue its first warnings next year based on readings from accelerometers. It also plans to send free warnings to organizations that want to turn off elevators, gas lines and other facilities automatically before the shaking begins.