Campus astronomy professor constructs homemade earthquake-alert system

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Though some Berkeley residents were shaken from their slumber during the earthquake that struck Napa late August, UC Berkeley astronomy professor Joshua Bloom and his wife, Ana, were awakened by something five seconds earlier: the sound of Bloom’s self-made earthquake alarm.

Bloom is a beta tester for the ShakeAlert earthquake early-warning system, an earthquake-detection network that several institutions, including UC Berkeley, are developing. Due to his access to the ShakeAlert software, Bloom was able to develop the idea he crafted nearly 11 months ago into a successful reality, all from his own home.

The device is made up of materials costing less than $110 and just a few main parts. The Raspberry Pi single-board computer, which detects and responds to the warning signals from ShakeAlert’s system, is connected to a powered speaker through which the sound of the alarm is projected. Additionally, the device makes use of a miniature Wi-Fi adapter, an SD card and a backup battery in the event that power cuts out.

The concept behind Bloom’s contraption is the idea of in-home earthquake detection that is also energy-efficient, compact and cost-effective. In fact, Bloom stores the prototype of his device in a take-out container from Gregoire Restaurant.

Though Bloom is not authorized to commercialize his device, he isn’t frustrated.

“I’m just excited to have created it and excited that people are so excited,” Bloom said. “My hope is that people know that this device is very easy to build on your own.”

Even if a device like it were to be manufactured in people’s homes, however, families could not make use of it without access to the ShakeAlert system, which does not have the estimated $80 million in funding needed to construct and maintain the system in California. If anything, Bloom hopes his device raises awareness about ShakeAlert’s efforts and spurs public action, particularly in the wake of the magnitude 6.1 earthquake in Napa just a few weeks ago.

“There can’t be a plan of action with this device as of now,” Bloom said. “The technology is more than possible but not where we are now with funding.”

The UC Berkeley-hosted conference Sept. 3 also acknowledged challenges to establishing an earthquake early-warning system — mainly the cost of developing this detection network for the West Coast.

Nonetheless, scientists working with ShakeAlert are hopeful about the implications behind Bloom’s application of the early-warning technology.

“We do expect that when the system becomes public, every person will have alert systems in their homes, on their TV, radio, phones and many more applications that people are just starting to think about,” said Jennifer Strauss, external relations officer of Berkeley’s Seismological Laboratory, in an email.

Adrianna Dinolfo covers academics and administration. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @Adriannadinolfo.