HF Propagation And Earthquakes

For all the successes of modern weather forecasting, where hurricanes, blizzards, and even notoriously unpredictable tornadoes are routinely detected before they strike, reliably predicting one aspect of nature’s fury has eluded us: earthquakes. The development of plate tectonic theory in the middle of the 20th century and the construction of a worldwide network of seismic sensors gave geologists the tools to understand how earthquakes happened, and even provided the tantalizing possibility of an accurate predictor of a coming quake. Such efforts had only limited success, though, and enough false alarms that most efforts to predict earthquakes were abandoned by the late 1990s or so.

It may turn out that scientists were looking in the wrong place for a reliable predictor of coming earthquakes. Some geologists and geophysicists have become convinced that instead of watching the twitches and spasms of the earth, the state of the skies above might be more fruitful. And they’re using the propagation of radio waves from both space and the ground to prove their point that the ionosphere does some interesting things before and after an earthquake strikes.

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Hackaday Podcast 042: Capacitive Earthquakes, GRBL On ESP32, Solenoid Engines, And The TI-99 Space Program

Hackaday Editors Elliot Williams and Mike Szczys talk turkey on the latest hacks. Random numbers, art, and electronic geekery combine into an entropic masterpiece. We saw Bart Dring bring new life to a cool little multi-pen plotter from the Atari age. Researchers at UCSD built a very very very slow soft robot, and a broken retrocomputer got a good dose of the space age. A 555 is sensing earthquakes, there’s an electric motor that wants to drop into any vehicle, and did you know someone used to have to read the current time into the telephone ad nauseam?

Take a look at the links below if you want to follow along, and as always tell us what you think about this episode in the comments!

Direct download (59 MB)

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Simple Seismic Sensor Makes Earthquake Detection Personal

When an earthquake strikes, it’s usually hard to miss. At least that’s the case with the big ones; the dozens or hundreds of little quakes that go largely unnoticed every day are interesting too, and make sense to track. That’s usually left to the professionals, with racks of sensitive equipment and a far-flung network of seismic sensors. That doesn’t mean you can’t keep track of doings below your feet yourself, with something like this DIY seismograph.

Technically, what [Alex] built is better called a “seismic detector” since it’s not calibrated in any way. It’s just a simple sensor for detecting ground vibrations, whether they be due to passing trucks or The Big One. [Alex] lives in California, wedged between the Hayward, Calaveras, and San Andreas faults in San Jose, so there is plenty of opportunity for testing his device. The business end is a simple pendulum sensor, with a heavy metal bob hanging from a long wire inside a length of plastic pipe. Positioned close to the bob is a copper plate; the bob and the plate form an air-dielectric variable capacitor that controls the frequency of a simple 555 oscillator. The frequency is measured by a PIC microcontroller and sent to a Raspberry Pi, which displays the data on a graph. You can check in on real-time seismic activity in San Jose using the link above, or check out historical quakes, like the 7.1 magnitude Ridgecrest quake in July. [Alex]’s sensor is sensitive enough to pick up recent quakes in Peru, Fiji, and Nevada, and he even has some examples of visualizing the Earth’s core using data from the sensor. How cool is that?

We’ve seen other seismic detectors before, like this piezo-based device, or even one made from toilet parts. We like the simplicity of the capacitive sensor [Alex] used, though.

Watch Earthquake Roll Across A Continent In Seismograph Visualization Video

If your only exposure to seismologists at work is through film and television, you can be forgiven for thinking they still lay out rolls of paper to examine lines of ink under a magnifying glass. The reality is far more interesting in a field that has eagerly adopted all available technology. A dramatic demonstration of modern earthquake data gathering, processing, and visualization was Tweeted by @IRIS_EPO following a central California quake on July 4th, 2019. In this video can see the quake’s energy propagate across the continental United States in multiple waves of varying speed and intensity. The video is embedded below, but click through to the Twitter thread too as it has a lot more explanation.

The acronym IRIS EPO expands out to Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology, Education and Public Outreach. We agree with their publicity mission; more people need to know how cool modern seismology is. By combining information from thousands of seismometers, we could see forces that we could not see from any individual location. IRIS makes seismic data available to researchers (or curious data science hackers) in a vast historical database or a real time data stream. Data compilations are presented in several different forms, this particular video is a GMV or Ground Motion Visualization. Significant events like the 4th of July earthquake get their own GMV page where we can see additional details, like the fact this visualization compiled data from 2,132 stations.

If this stirred up interest in seismology, you can join in the fun of networked seismic data. A simple seismograph can be built from quite humble components, but of course there are specially designed chips for the task as well.

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Earthquake Detection On A Chip

If you’ve ever been in an earthquake you’d assume it would be pretty easy to detect one. If things are shaking, there’s an earthquake. In reality, though, a lot of things can shake a sensitive instrument that is detecting shaking, so — for example — mechanical sensors will produce a lot of false positives. Now, however, you can filter out errant vibrations and reliably detect earthquakes on a chip.

The Rohm BP3901 has two primary features. First, it supposedly eliminates false detections due to things like a heavy truck rumbling by. In addition, while most sensors must be mounted completely flat, the BP3901 has a compensation method for angle which lets you mount it as much as 15 degrees rotated in either direction and still get good results. That’s because the BP3901 is based on the combination of an accelerometer and a microcontroller in one package to detect movement, characterize it based on an algorithm and reacting through an I2C bus and an INT pin.

Rohm suggests you could power the BP3901 for about 5 years with two AA batteries with the example of averaging 10 three-minute wake up events a month. We aren’t sure why we want to detect an earthquake, but we think we do. Imagine a large sensor network sending back real-time data as an earthquake happens — something we saw last year using Raspberry Pi. That project used a Geophone as the detector, which could be replaced by this chip. Rohm plans to have “OEM quantities” for sale next month which we hope means we can get smaller quantities from distributors.

A lot of people spend a lot of time thinking about how to predict earthquakes, as we’ve seen before. Of interest, the ancient Romans may have had a way to deflect earthquakes, so they probably didn’t care as much about detecting them.

Build A Seismometer Out Of Plumbing Parts

For those outside the rocking and rolling of California’s tectonic plate, earthquakes probably don’t come up on a daily basis as a topic of conversation. Regardless, the instrument to measure them is called a seismometer, and it’s entirely possible to build one yourself. [Bob LeDoux] has shared his article on how to build a Fluid Mass Electrolytic Seismometer, and it’s an impressive piece of work.

This is an instrument which works very differently from the typical needle-and-graph type seen in the movies. Fluid is held in a sealed chamber, with a restricted orifice in the center of a tube. The fluid level is monitored at each side of the orifice. When motion occurs, fluid levels change at either side which allows seismic activity to be measured.

Hooked up to some basic analog electronics, in this form, the device only shows instantaneous activity. However, it would be trivial for the skilled maker to hook this up to a datalogging setup to enable measurements to be plotted and stored. The entire project can be built with simple hand tools and a basic PCB, making it highly accessible.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen a seismometer, either – the Raspberry Shake project is a distributed network of sensors running on the Raspberry Pi.

Raspberry Shake Detects Quakes

The Raspberry Pi’s goal, at least while it was being designed and built, was to promote computer science education by making it easier to access a working computer. What its low price tag also enabled was a revolution in distributed computing projects (among other things). One of those projects is the Raspberry Shake, a seismograph tool which can record nearby earthquakes.

Of course, the project just uses the Pi as a cost-effective computing solution. It runs custom software, but if you want to set up your own seismograph then you’ll also need some additional hardware. There are different versions of the Raspberry Shake, the simplest using a single Geophone which is a coil and magnet. Vibrations are detected by sensing the electric signal generated by the magnet moving within the coil of wire. Other models increase the count to three Geophones, or add in MEMS accelerometers, you can easily whip one of these up on your own bench.

The entire setup will fit nicely on a coffee table as well, making it much smaller (and cheaper) than a comparable professional seismograph. Once all of the Raspberry Shakes around the world were networked together, it gives an accurate, real-time view of seismic activity anywhere you can imagine. If you’ve ever been interested in geology or just want to see where the latest earthquake was, check out their projects. But you don’t need even a Raspberry Pi to see where the earthquakes are, thanks to a Hackaday Prize entry all you need is a Twitter account.

Thanks to [Rich Cochran] aka [AG6QR] for the tip!