If you drop your laptop computer, a chip built into it will sense the acceleration and protect the delicate moving parts of its hard disk before it hits the ground. A group of researchers led by Jesse Lawrence of Stanford University are putting the same accelerometer chip to an intriguing new use: detecting earthquakes. They plan to create a network of volunteer laptops that can map out future quakes in far greater detail than traditional seismometers manage.
Seismometers are large, expensive beasts, costing $10,000 or more apiece. They are designed to be exquisitely sensitive to the sort of vibrations an earthquake produces, which means they can pick up tremors that began halfway around the world. By contrast, the accelerometer chips in laptops, which have evolved from those used to detect when a car is in a collision and thus trigger the release of the airbags, are rather crude devices. They are, however, ubiquitous. Almost all modern laptops have them and they are even finding their way into mobile phones. The iPhone, for example, uses such a chip to detect its orientation so that it can rotate its display and thus make it easily readable.
On its own, an accelerometer chip in a laptop is not very useful for earthquake-detection, as it cannot distinguish between a quake and all sorts of other vibrations—the user tapping away at the keyboard, for example. But if lots of these chips are connected to a central server via the internet, their responses can be compared. And if a large number in a particular place register a vibration at almost the same time, it is more likely to be an earthquake than a bunch of users all hitting their space bars. To exploit this group effect, Dr Lawrence’s Quake-Catcher Network (QCN) employs the same software that is used by the SETI@home project, which aggregates computing power from hundreds of thousands of volunteer computers around the world to analyse radio-telescope signals for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence…
From the Economist.com
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