A Southern California high school junior has assembled a low cost seismometer that provides earthquake early warnings for homes and businesses. Costing less than $100 for her to make now, the seismometer could be a regular household security device akin to a smart smoke detector, says its inventor Vivien He.
Approximately the size of a Rubik’s cube and encaseseismometerd in clear acrylic, the seismometer has a slick, consumer ready look. The device’s geophone detects incoming floor movement, while onboard hardware and applications translate the geophone’s electric signals into a digital waveform. The device has detected all earthquakes over magnitude 3.0 approximately Los Angeles since September 2020.
When earthquakes are more powerful compared to alert threshold set by the user, the device can sound the onboard alert for onsite warning, send a text message into local subscribers of the regional warning assistance, and may be controlled by a smartphone.
She presented her study about the apparatus at the Seismological Society of America (SSA)’s 2021 Annual Meeting. She also won a SSA Student Travel Grant, the only high school student of all recipients, to attend the seminar at no cost. She is a pupil at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School in Rolling Hills Estates. He thanks her mathematics research class instructor, Melissa Klose, for her advice on scientific research methods and her support in pursuing research opportunities.
She researched, designed, assembled, and tested the seismometer over a summer and autumn at home underneath COVID-19 restrictions. Her house laboratory occupies a corner of a bedroom with “bedside drawers filled with little wires and additional geophones and elements” she explained.
There was also the bathroom she borrowed where the glowing light was good for soldering. For oil laser cutting, her father helped her drag a table from the garage to the lawn as a security precaution.
“I did–don’t tell my mom–but I did one time have a little bit of a fire,” she admitted.
The seismometer apparatus fills a gap in present earthquake early warning systems, She explained, by supplying a consumer-friendly, low-cost but built-for-purpose alternative to much more expensive, scientific-grade systems such as the West Coast’s ShakeAlert system. Her apparatus supplies a way for people in earthquake zones to gain a few to tens of seconds of warning to take actions and automatically shut down utilities and machines on the job.
She’s set up a nonprofit, Melior Earth, to help her get the seismometer to those who require an economical earthquake early warning system. “I do have hopes that I would be able to provide this to lower-income families and neighborhoods with less earthquake-proof infrastructure,” she said.
Quiet Under Quarantine
She got the concept of your own seismometer after studying a paper about the unusual seismic “quiet” that descended over the ground when COVID-19 lockdowns brought a stop to human activity. “I was wondering whether I would be able to measure that from my own home,” she recalled, “and then that quickly evolved into, I wonder if I can measure in my own home and apply it to earthquake early warning?”
She started reading about earthquake early warning and constructing a three-ring binder of emphasized papers, including many from SSA journals. Among her favorite researchers in the area was Richard M. Allen, manager of the Berkeley Seismology Lab.
“I really enjoyed the way he explained earthquake early warning systems and the current systems’ limitations,” she said.
The study gave the confidence that she could build a low cost seismometer for earthquake early warning, taking a consumer-based approach versus the traditional public station-based strategy. After that, it was time to figure out the components, the programming and the layout. She didn’t have a lot of experience going into the project, however, given much of the abilities and knowledge needed were out of school curriculum.
“I went to an MIT hackathon the other day, and what they said is that the secret for hackers is that they just google everything, right?” she said. “And that’s kind of like what I did for this project, like, oh, I don’t know how this works, just google it!'”
As she said in her SSA presentation, the device evolved over time as her skills improved and she solved design problems along the way. Together with the seismometer alert and notification functions, the final design includes a data card which can hold up to four years’ worth of regular earthquake waveform files which can also be used for seismological studies.
“Hey, You Guys Hear That?”
He plugged in her first seismometer one night after midnight last September. “And then I went to sleep, and then the next day I woke up and there had been an earthquake in Los Angeles and I was like, oh, it’s fate!”
She compared the seismic signal captured by her device to one made with a U.S. Geological Survey station close to her residence, “and the waveform looked the same,” she recalled.
Among the first successes of her testing interval came when “my family was all in the living room and we were all talking and the device started beeping and I said, ‘Hey, you guys hear that?’ And they were like, ‘is it an earthquake?’ and then the pendant lights started shaking,” she said.
The seismometer has successfully discovered several recent earthquakes in Southern California, and she has competed in science fairs in her college district and Los Angeles County. There, she won the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) Finalist award, which goes on to compete in the international level next. In addition, she won the Association of Women Geoscientists Award, the Cheryl Saban Self-Worth Foundation for Women & Girls 1st Place Award and Scholarship, along with the Professional Engineers in California Government’s Marylin Jorgenson-Reece Award of Excellence and Scholarship.
He, who turned 17 in February, is working on getting a utility patent for the seismometer. She intends to use her nonprofit to drive customer adoption to the apparatus, particularly making earthquake early warning accessible for the lower-income nations, regions and people.
“The whole point of it is that it would be a consumer product, but I’m not focused on the monetary gain of it,” she explained. “I’m more focused on the science of it and just the impact in general on people and on earthquake disaster prevention.”