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This Personal Seismic Gadget Will Warn You Before The Big One Hits

In an earthquake or tsunami, 30 seconds extra notice can mean the difference between life or death.

When the 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal in April, none of the country’s residents had advance warning. Early warning systems do exist, but they are expensive and complicated to implement. Even in tech-filled, quake-prone California, an early-warning system for earthquakes is only in the pilot stages.

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Now a team of seismologists has designed a low-cost sensor that can help people today. Called the Brinco, it can send personalized warnings through an app up to 30 seconds before an earthquake hits. That may not seem likely a lot of cushion, but it could be enough crucial time to duck and find cover.

Even in places where early warning systems already exist, the Brinco’s sensors can go further, giving a message targeted for a person’s exact location and letting them know what to expect. A message might say, “Strong shaking in 15 seconds. The shaking should last 20 seconds. There is no risk of tsunami,” or “Don’t worry, you will feel a little bump but this earthquake is going to be harmless.”

“No other products on the market are doing this,” says Branden Christensen, a seismologist from OSOP, the seismograph manufacturing company that designed the gadget. “Brinco was designed to protect you and your family, not for scientists. Brinco’s goal is to identify danger and get the word out instantly.”

If a full network of homes, schools, and other buildings in an area starts using the devices, that will also make existing warning systems much more accurate. Like other seimographs, Brinco measures each tremble of the ground and then sends the data over Wi-Fi to national and regional seismic networks, where it can be analyzed along with streams of other data.

“Each Brinco will enhance systems that the U.S. Geological Survey is working on,” says Angel Rodriguez, who works on seismic instrumentation for OSOP. “Automatic earthquake location software systems need about six sensors triggering to initiate an earthquake location. If there was a uniform grid of earthquake sensors in California, then everyone would get the same warning level.”

The company plans to initially target cities living on the “Ring of Fire,” with a focus on the West Coast–everywhere from Seattle, at risk for a massive quake, to Los Angeles. “There is no other place on the globe where the population is as tech savvy, open to innovative new products and as in tune with earthquake danger,” Christensen says.

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Ultimately, they hope the sensors, which will be availcan be everywhere. “We are shooting for ubiquity,” he says. “We would like Brinco to be as commonplace and reliable as a fire alarm–quietly vigil while you eat, sleep and go about your daily routine.”

They’re even hoping that the gadgets can help inspire blase Californians to finally go out and buy more earthquake supplies (right now, nearly half of the population doesn’t have a preparedness kit). With the app, they’ll start to notice how common earthquakes actually are.

“Earthquakes are perceived as rare but they are really not,” Christensen says. “The earth is breaking, shaking and moving about all of the time. Brinco will detect earthquakes at all scales–even ones you cannot feel. This will not only help seismologists better understand earthquakes and map potentially dangerous faults, it will also help educate the public about the danger.”

Brinco is raising funds on Indiegogo. A contribution of $189 gets you the Brinco.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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