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Laptop Computers Detect and Monitor Earthquakes 78

Pickens writes "Live Science reports that 1,000 people from 61 countries have signed up with the Quake-Catcher Network to take advantage of built-in accelerometers in newer laptops that transmit data about earthquakes to researchers at UC Irvine and Stanford University. 'It's providing additional data that can be fed into the seismic networks,' says Elizabeth Cochran, a UC Irvine geoscientist. 'It also allows us to record earthquakes at a scale that we haven't been able to before because of the cost.' Cochran came up with the idea for the Quake-Catcher Network when she learned that most new laptops come equipped with accelerometers designed to switch off the hard drive if the laptop is dropped. 'I figured that we could easily tap into this data and use it to record earthquakes.' While traditional seismic monitors can detect earthquakes of magnitude 1.0 or less, the lowest magnitude the Quake-Catcher Network can detect is about 4.0, a moderate quake much like the one that hit LA on March 16. But what the network lacks in sensitivity, it makes up for in price as traditional seismic sensors cost $5,000 to $10,000 apiece. 'Ideally we would have seismometers in every building, or at least on every block. And in tall buildings, we'd have multiple sensors [on different floors],' says Cochran. 'That way, we would be able to actually get much higher detail images of how the ground shakes during an earthquake.'"
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Laptop Computers Detect and Monitor Earthquakes

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  • Ms. Cochran is, I believe, at UC Riverside, not Irvine.
  • *shakes laptop vigorously*
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Jeng ( 926980 )

      And that is why they no longer use "Etch a Sketch" as a means of recording earthquakes.

    • Re:Take this! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by FooAtWFU ( 699187 ) on Tuesday March 23, 2010 @04:20PM (#31588718) Homepage
      In all seriousness, they use the laptops to provide supplementary data to model the shaking of the ground and the buildings, not as primary earthquake detectors. People deliberately shaking their laptops are their least concerns. (Normal shaking, like from typing, is more important.)
      • I thought of this, too, as I sit here in a coffeeshop, feeling the floor shake as people walk by. However, I'm going to guess that most people's typing wouldn't register 4.0 on the Richter scale.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by troll -1 ( 956834 )
      1) FTA: "[t]he Quake-Catcher software program ...... runs in the background on the laptop and becomes active when the user is idle."

      2) The data is supplemental and used only for additional info gathered at the time of an earthquake.
  • by tomhudson ( 43916 ) <barbara.hudson@b ... u d s o n . c om> on Tuesday March 23, 2010 @03:59PM (#31588480) Journal

    There was a report here on slashdot that the balance board hardware was actually VERY good. Maybe the MotionPlus could be useful.

    • Nah. Mobile phones (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Colin Smith ( 2679 ) on Tuesday March 23, 2010 @04:28PM (#31588828)

      Many mobiles have accelerometers these days in addition to gps. So you can get the gps positions of the wave as well as the gps timestamp and the accelerometer values.

      They are even connected to a network. The tricorder in startrek... Mobile phone...

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        I suspect, though, that substantially fewer mobile phones are well coupled to the earth at any given time.

        Laptops aren't fantastic in that regard; but they are substantially better. Most of a laptop's "on time" is spent sitting on some more or less solid piece of furniture. There are the "user wandering around holding the thing" and "sitting in user's amply padded lap" and "on top of cushion on top of pile of blankets on top of bed, overheating" data points that you have to be able to filter out; but tho
        • Nokia 5500 £20 on Ebay with accelerometer, no gps but if you're glueing it down you know where it is.
          N82 with accelerometer & GPS. £50

          It's really ridiculous how much computing power is being virtually thrown away these days. You even get premade accessories like solar chargers if you want to place them somewhere off grid.


          • Oh, I totally agree that for "purchasing off-the-shelf-tech as a cheaper substitute for purpose-built seismometers" cases, mobile phones are the way to go. Cheaper, lower power, smaller, solid state, even the ghastliest of them can do SMS to report back to HQ. Buy 'em in bulk, glue them to stuff, get bulk rate on SMS from whatever local telcomm is hungriest. Game over. Laptops don't even compare.
            br> However, my impression was that this project was looking to piggyback on equipment that is already in the
        •   Couldn't they filter noise of that nature out with the same software they use for seismometers?


          • The trouble isn't noise per se(cellphones would definitely be noisy; but laptops have things like typing to consider, so they are both noisy); but lost signal.

            If a laptop is sitting on the table, on, it is fairly well coupled to the ground(not as well as a pro seismometer, where phrases like "located on concrete piers attached to bedrock" tend to crop up); but reasonably well. The actual accelerometer chip is soldered onto the board, which is bolted into a rigid frame, which has a few thin, non-skid rub
            •   Ah, so the real problem is too many levels of noise (laptop-rubberfeet-frame etc) Thanks :)

                It's amazing what noise filtering software can do nowadays, but I don't have time to keep up with the field and couldn't hope to keep up with the math, so have to ask :)


      • The tricorder in startrek... Mobile phone...

        There's an actual tricorder app for the Android (don't know about the iPhone). Best app ever - comes complete with acoustic, accelerometric, magnetic and solar data, and the all important sound effects. Now if I could just flip it and talk into it like in Star Trek.... geek bliss.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Bakkster ( 1529253 )

      The balance board uses strain guages, which can't detect earthquakes to my knowledge. Similarly, motionplus is gyroscopes, which in this case are not accurate enough to determine the very small displacements from an earthquake.

      However, I'm very surprised they're not just going for a bulk purchase of unlocked smartphones, it must be cheaper and just as accurate as laptop accelerometers. Laptops seem very roundabout...

      • by TubeSteak ( 669689 ) on Tuesday March 23, 2010 @06:01PM (#31589942) Journal

        However, I'm very surprised they're not just going for a bulk purchase of unlocked smartphones, it must be cheaper and just as accurate as laptop accelerometers. Laptops seem very roundabout...

        Price, Quality, Speed. Pick two.

        Laptops are "free", have "free" internet, get recharged for "free", are usually on a solid surface, and the reporting software is downloadable. And by "free" I mean "free to the scientists"

        OTOH, do you want to be the guy who has to get permission from XYZ building owners in order to distribute and plug in an endless number of smart phones?

        Software on laptops seem to be a lot better than smartphones when it comes to price and speed.

        • Ah, I fail at reading comprehension. It's a distributed computing measure, meaning that yes, the laptops are already in the field doing someone else's work, they just happen to be earthquake sensors as well.

      • The balance board uses strain guages, which can't detect earthquakes to my knowledge

        Sure they can - just put a 200-pound weight on it, and place it on the floor. Look at the design of some of the old seismographs - or even gravity wave detectors.

  • by natehoy ( 1608657 ) on Tuesday March 23, 2010 @03:59PM (#31588486) Journal

    [phone rings, Quake-Catcher volunteer answers]
    Volunteer: "Hello?"
    Quake-Catcher Scientist: "Hi, Mr. Jones. We'd like to ask you some questions about a highly-localized event last night."
    V: "What?"
    S: "We clearly read a 8.8 Richter reading in your apartment last night around 10PM, but we can't confirm this with any other data."
    V: [puts hand over handset] "HONEY?! DID YOU LEAVE THE LAPTOP IN THE BED LAST NIGHT?!"

  • by uncledrax ( 112438 ) on Tuesday March 23, 2010 @04:07PM (#31588572) Homepage

    I can't wait for Facebook group 'laptop drops' to simulate earth quakes.. the winner being hte person that can get the highest on the Richter scale w/o braking their laptops..

    • by dgatwood ( 11270 )

      I think you meant the loser?

    • If you could actually coordinate a mass shaking of laptops, with appropriately staggered times and shaking characteristics, I would be very, very impressed.

      • by Trepidity ( 597 )

        Not to mention that you'd have to do it at exactly the same time as an actual earthquake, since afaict they plan to use the laptop data only as supplemental data to get more detail about events that they detect with the traditional seismometer network.

    • the winner being hte person that can get the highest on the Richter scale w/o braking their laptops..

      Sudden deceleration without applying braking? Physical impossibility, I think.

  • Didn't I see something just the other day about doing the exact same thing but with smartphones?
    • This specific implementation (the quake-catcher network) has been around for several years already, so this is already old news - and I believe there was indeed an article on slashdot about a similar idea for smartphones. I think I posted information about this in that article's comments, actually.

    • Display and process accelrometer times series.
  • I figured that we could easily tap into this data and use it to record earthquakes.

    Sounds like someone from marketing. "Oh yeah, that's easy. It's only software."

    • Re:Easily? (Score:4, Informative)

      by penguinchris ( 1020961 ) <[moc.liamg] [ta] [sirhcniugnep]> on Tuesday March 23, 2010 @04:36PM (#31588906) Homepage

      Well, it is actually quite easy... there is a lot of software available that will capture the data from accelerometers and display it to you. The hardware is pretty simple and I guess the APIs are easy to use (I'm not a programmer I'm just assuming based on the software I've seen). When I first got a computer with an accelerometer (a Thinkpad from a couple years ago) I was even able to set it up to use the accelerometer input as a joystick in linux. Not practical, but kind of amusing to try to play a flying game by moving the whole computer around :) There are also several programs for iphones and Android devices that will output all of the accelerometer data to you (on android I recommend the free "Tricorder" program, it shows you data from all the sensors and more than you probably thought possible).

      Therefore it should be - and apparently was - fairly trivial to set up a program to run in the background logging and monitoring the data

      The neat thing is that the accelerometers really are quite high-resolution, and there is one measuring each direction (x, y, and z) which real seismometers also do.

  • How about using the sensor data to tell what keys the person has pressed on the keyboard?

  • by damn_registrars ( 1103043 ) <> on Tuesday March 23, 2010 @04:35PM (#31588888) Homepage Journal
    They are also taking advantage of the fact that most laptops seldom (if ever) move much. Many people buy them more to save physical space on their desk than they do to actually go somewhere with them.
  • Haven't some Apple machines had this for a few years now? IIRC, it was called "SeisMac" or something like that.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Earthquakes? Phaw. My laptop can tell both the weather and earthquakes!

    When it's wet, it's raining. When it blows over, it's windy. And if it jiggles, there's an earthquake.

    Captcha: goatse. Has someone been fooling around with Slashdot again?

  • AFRICA?? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    African internet presence is saddening, indeed.

    The first link in TFS has a Google map. The google map shows a single laptop for Africa, located in Cairo. Zoom out and you can see it's not a fluke, because the other continents have plenty of entries of either laptops or USB sensors (compare to Puerto Rico or US presence)

    • Yeah but by that measure Australia and India are both pretty damn empty too. It may just be a question of awareness or interest.

  • Even by averaging the data, I can't see how they expect to see anything as small as a scale 4.0... Laptops are mobile things, they usually stand on the lap, which is not an ideal stable platform...
    • It's not for primary detection of earthquakes, so they know exactly when to look for interesting data from the laptops, and they can look at the motion of the laptop before and after the earthquake and throw out any results from laptops that were moving about at the time.

  • My optical mouse often turns on its LED for no apparent reason. This is in SoCal so I have a feeling it's just damn sensitive.
    It always turns on when I walk into the room.

    I don't use a mouse pad (which are usually a bit sticky so they should introduce a hysteresis) but the mouse just sits on the smooth desktop.

    • That's just a new part of Superfetch. Windows 7 knows you're about to move the mouse, so it warms it up.

      Seriously though, how flexible is your floor, could easily be shifting the floorboards. Dunno about its usability for quakes though, you're missing at least one axis of movement and probably magnitude in the remaining ones.

      • If I ran Windows I might look into this hypothesis :)
        My point is, it sometimes also turns on when I don't walk around. Of course it could be just a fat neighbor,

  • unanswered questions (Score:4, Interesting)

    by frovingslosh ( 582462 ) on Tuesday March 23, 2010 @06:13PM (#31590104)

    most new laptops come equipped with accelerometers

    So how do I determine if my laptop has one? And if it does, how can I get access to it by software? Even if the is one or more accelerometers in there for protection of the hard drive, it will require a presence in the I/O address space, I assume, for it to be used by this or any other software. Apparently this exists, or the software would be as useful as Duke Nuken Forever, but I have not found any insight in the articles on how accelerometers can be accessed. Can anyone provide some technical details? I would like to use this for other applications, but would gladly share any earthquake data that the system captured while it was idle if I had the hardware.

  • Never was a statement rendered so inaccurate no that this has been slashdotted. "1,000 people from 61 countries have signed up with the Quake-Catcher Network" More than that by now.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    This could also provide interesting data in the case of a large office building, allowing better analysis of how the structure reacted to the motion. Hundreds of points of measurement, in a real-world structure, during and even, could lead to even better understanding of failure modes for structures.

1 Angstrom: measure of computer anxiety = 1000 nail-bytes