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Earthquake early warning could come from hard drive sensors

IBM technologists have patented a natural disaster warning system which would use analytics based on data from hard disk accelerometers to provide post-event assessments of seismic events to help improve rescue operations.

IBM Master Inventors Robert Friedlander (pictured) and Jim Kraemer claim that their proposed system can also provide rapid analysis and measurement of damage zones in areas struck by earthquakes, and provide early-warning of earthquake-driven tsunamis.

MEMs (microelectromechanical systems) accelerometers - vibration sensors that measure acceleration experienced relative to freefall - are equipped to every PC hard disk, initially there to detect sudden gravitational shifts so that drives of dropped PCs can be secured before they hit the ground. However, the devices can now also detect large accelerations in any direction. Where drives are rack-mounted in fixed locations, they are well place to pick-up ‘significant acceleration' that may be caused by seismic waves. Information can then be relayed to emergency response agencies to help inform strategic actions.

The inspiration for the system came when Kraemer and Friedlander saw a connection between news of new hard disk drives' able to interact with the PC operating systems using an interrupt, and news reports concerning recent natural disasters suggesting that lives could have been saved if better ways of automatically transmitting alerts about impending secondary impacts could be transmitted to those located on the outer perimeters of affected areas.

"When significant acceleration is detected, messages would be sent to local aggregation applications," says Kraemer. "We envision the filter running at the building, city, state, national, and international level."

The system would "need to know the fixed longitude and latitude of [participating] devices, where the located in the building including floor numbers above the ground, and ideally their compass orientation," adds Friedlander. "We would provide an application for participating buildings to give building managers information about the effect of an earthquake on their building."

The system's focus is not to detect the ‘small earthquakes' that cause little or no damage, Kraemer adds: "That is now, and should remain, the domain of the US Geological Survey and academic researchers.  What we want to detect is the physical effects of significant events that are a danger to life and limb."

IBM is interested in conducting additional research on the patent with academic institutions, scientific funding organisations, and governmental agencies.
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