Google is creating the world’s largest earthquake detector

Google is on a mission to create the world’s largest earthquake detector. To do this, the tech giant is using the same accelerometer that rotates your screen.

Beginning with Android 5.0’s launch on August 11, phones running the OS will start becoming part of Google’s Lucious Fox-like Android Earthquake Alerts System. “All smartphones come with tiny accelerometers that can sense signals that indicate an earthquake might be happening,” Google said in the earthquake detector’s announcement“If the phone detects something that it thinks may be an earthquake, it sends a signal to our earthquake detection server, along with a coarse location of where the shaking occurred.”

Google will use city-level location data to establish the location. Then, if many phones in the same area are going off, the Android Earthquake Alerts System will in the future send out the titular alerts, hopefully buying people precious seconds or minutes to find a safe place to shelter in the shaking.

The accelerometer inside a smartphone is sensitive enough to detect two types of earthquake waves — most importantly, the P wave (primary wave). P waves are the harbingers; they are followed by S (secondary) waves, which are often slower but more severe. 

In California, Google will work with the state’s ShakeAlert system, which utilizes a network of traditional, in-ground seismometers to detect earthquakes quickly. The system began a trial for sending out predictive alerts last October.

Eventually, Google hopes its enormous earthquake detector can provide early warnings across states and countries, leveraging the massive power of many monitors at once. What they will not be able to do — and no one can, or at least not yet — predict earthquakes. But what they can do is use information from phones that are nearest to the earthquake to help users further away to know about the earthquake much quicker.

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