Researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey are trying to figure out whether smartphones might be used to give earthquake warnings.
People standing above the epicenter of a large earthquake will feel the ground shaking before those on the periphery of the quake. The same can be said of their smartphones.
Ben Brooks with the USGS says if a computer was checking for simultaneous movement of a large number of smartphones, it could give people on the periphery of a quake a 10 or 20 second warning.
That's enough time to stop a surgeon from making a cut, he said.
"Or if you're a bullet train that would like to stop. Or if you'd like to automatically shut off gas valves. You can imagine all kinds of scenarios," Brooks said. "Or if your kids are trained at school, when they hear the sound to get under their desk - drop cover and hold on."
Simulations of earthquakes in California and Japan show data from about 5,000 phones would be enough to trigger a warning.
Researchers at CalTech have tried a similar system. But it didn't work because phone makers filtered GPS data. That means the earthquake movement was filtered and therefore didn't register.