As millions prepare for the Great California ShakeOut, a professor hopes his $100 early warning device will lead to more funding for the ShakeAlert network.

Today at 10:16 a.m. PT, millions of Californians will participate in the Great California ShakeOut, an annual quake drill where for a minute or so, people will stop what they’re doing, get down on the ground, take cover and hold on. Schools, government facilities, hospitals, businesses and individuals have vowed to take part. 

Now in its seventh year, the ShakeOut is a joint effort between emergency managers and scientists to educate the public on how to protect themselves in the event of a large temblor. Case in point: The Loma Prieta quake killed 63 people in the San Francisco Bay Area almost 25 years ago on October 17, 1989.

Knowing what to do during a natural disaster is all well and good, but what if there was a device that could alert you seconds before the shaking, and was as readily available and easy to install as a smoke alarm or carbon monoxide detector?

University of California at Berkeley astronomy professor Joshua Bloom has created just such an earthquake early warning device. He got a chance to test it during the August 24 Napa quake that struck at 3:20 a.m. Signaled by the state’s ShakeAlert, a fledgling detection system that uses sensors and algorithms to determine a quake’s magnitude, calculate where it will hit hardest and issue warnings in affected areas, Bloom’s device sounded, giving him enough time (five seconds) to secure his family before the shaking reached his home.

A self-described “tinkerer,” the Harvard-educated astronomer, built the prototype that connects to the ShakeAlert system about 11 months earlier using readily available materials that cost him about $100. So why aren’t the devices being mass-produced and marketed to vulnerable residents and businesses in quake-prone areas? First, the ShakeAlert system, which is being developed by the U.S. Geological Survey in conjunction with several universities (including Berkeley), requires about $80 million in funding to complete. Though that amount might seem substantial, Bloom sees it as a wise investment given the good it could do.

On the eve of the ShakeOut, Not Impossible Now spoke with Bloom about his device and the ShakeAlert program.

NIN: How did you come up with your device and why did you make it?

Professor Joshua Bloom: As an astronomer, I’m interested in things that change in time in outer space and I ended up getting connected to the Berkeley Seismological Lab. They’re working with very different types of data but it’s a similar to what I do in trying to make inferences and discoveries about things that change in space, but on the ground using sensors. 

I joined the Lab as an advisor and learned about the ShakeAlert program that a number of my colleagues here, at Caltech and other institutions have been building and advocating for funding. As part of my connection to that, I had data access to this program they have. I tried it out on my laptop and was excited about it. Then I realized every time I closed my laptop I wasn’t protected. Whenever I left my house, my family wasn’t protected with this potential alert. 

So I started thinking about an always-on protection device that could be in places where I live and work. Because I’m kind of a tinkerer at heart — I’ve played around with Raspberry Pis (a small computer that plugs into a TV and keyboard) for a number of years — I thought it would be great to have one of these alerting systems that was essentially a computer, but didn’t cost much to build and maintain and, more importantly, if the power went out, it could run on a battery. 

This could be used not only for earthquakes but also for any manmade or natural disaster. So I built this device and let it run in my house. I didn’t think much about it, and then the Napa quake happened, and the alert went off. We had a couple of seconds warning in my house, and I realized it worked.

How big is the device?

Joshua: It’s about six inches, by six inches by three inches. One of the things I realized is that I should package it so that it looks like a carbon monoxide detector or a Nest thermostat. The night before I was going to show it to some people, I got some takeout from a local Berkeley restaurant and they had a very cool cardboard box that I decided to repurpose, so I put the device inside of that. It worked out pretty well.

Do you consider it a prototype?

Joshua: Very much so. If this were going to be mass fabricated, it would be much more compact. The off-the-shelf parts cost about $100. In a mass-fabrication sense, you could build the whole thing for less, maybe $30-40. The technology itself is outside of the device. There are some software and hardware handshaking and an alarm, but the really hard part is happening upstream and outside the device, with the ShakeAlert network.

Did you patent the device?

Joshua: I disclosed this to the University of California, and they decided they wanted to go forward with the provisional patent so that’s been put in. It’s patent pending. There are a number of companies interested in licensing the technology.

When do think this device will be in practical use?

Joshua: I think of it as a device for the future. It would be wonderful if everyone could buy this for $89.95 and install it in their house, school or business, but right now they would be useless because the ShakeAlert network is not ready for prime time. It’s underfunded and under-resourced in terms of the density of the sensors that are going to be required to have a robust system. It would be the equivalent of if I gave you an iPhone and there was no cell phone network. 

At some level, it’s ahead of its time for the purposes of earthquake early warning. Given the awareness this has raised for the possibility of having a cheap device that everyone could have, I hope they will find the funding for the ShakeAlert network. The nominal number is about $80 million to fully fund it, which, on the scale of whatever damage we would be talking about, is really nothing. 

There is momentum on this. The Berkeley Seismological Lab director Richard Allen was instrumental in getting a bill passed earlier this year that was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown that essentially mandated that by 2016 (state emergency officials) identify a path for funding the ShakeAlert network. It doesn’t mean there will be funding in 2016, but it’s a step in the right direction. The hope is that people realize that with not a lot of money this thing could become a reality.

Top photo credit: iStock/SDubi

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect that the Great California ShakeOut is taking place today.