The United States Needs an Earthquake Warning System Already

On Monday night, residents of the Los Angeles neighborhoods of Westwood, Los Feliz, Silver Lake, and parts of the San Fernando Valley experienced a mild earthquake—a magnitude 3.6. Most people slept through the temblor and no damage was reported.

But a select group of 150 LA residents got a text alert on their mobile phone a full eight seconds before the quake hit at 11:10 pm—enough time for people to drop, cover, and hold on. Along with a pinned location of quake’s epicenter, the text gave its magnitude and intensity, the number of seconds left before the shaking, and instructions on what to do. The system detects an earthquake’s up-and-down p-wave, which travels faster and precedes the destructive horizontal s-wave, and converts that signal into a broadcast warning.

Other parts of the world have similar systems—but accessible to a wider population. On Tuesday afternoon, Mexico City sirens blared a few seconds before a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck the capital, flattening hundreds of buildings and killing at least 200 people. When an 8.1 magnitude quake hit on September 7 off the coast of Mexico, the SASMEX alert system collecting data from sensors along Mexico’s western coast gave residents more than a minute’s warning from sirens and even news reports on radio and TV. A complementary smartphone app is used by millions of Mexicans. And Japan also has a sophisticated earthquake text-alert system, giving tsunami and earthquake warnings to the entire nation.

So why is the US earthquake system stuck in beta mode with only a lucky few getting an earthquake heads-up? The LA residents received their early warning as part of a pilot study conducted by the US Geological Survey and Santa Monica-based Early Warning Labs. But experts say lack of money and bureaucratic inertia has stymied the USGS ShakeAlert warning system, despite a decade of promises and positive trial runs.

The USGS has only installed about 40 percent of the 1,675 sensors it needs to protect seismically vulnerably areas of the West Coast in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Seattle, says Doug Given, who coordinates the ShakeAlert system at the USGS Pasadena office. “We still don’t have full funding,” says Given. “We are on a continuing resolution through December 8 and are operating at the level of last year’s budget.”

ShakeAlert costs a measly $ 16 million each year to build and operate, but the USGS has only been given $ 10 million each year. The Trump administration’s proposed budget had zeroed-out the entire ShakeAlert program, but dozens of lawmakers from San Diego to Seattle protested. A House committee blocked the cuts in July, but the final budget document is still awaiting passage.

The promise of ShakeAlert—which goes beyond the smartphone app tested by those LA residents—has already been shown in many ways. The system gives automated early warnings to slow BART trains in the Bay Area and protect California oil and gas refinery operations. ShakeAlert will even automatically put NASA’s deep space telescope in Goldstone, California into a safe mode. A few luxury condo buildings in Marina del Rey, Calif., and Santa Monica College have also purchased a commercial version of the ShakeAlert warning, which piggybacks off the USGS sensors but offers a direct signal to the building that slows elevators inside.

But getting a widespread text alert system up and running for the millions of Californians (and Oregonians and Washingtonians) is a tougher sell. The engineers and scientists working on the project have to be confident there won’t be false alarms that would weaken the warning’s credibility.

They are also dealing with a bottleneck from US phone companies who haven’t been able to embed the warning signal into existing wireless networks, according to Josh Bashioum, founder and principal investigator of Early Warning Labs. “Unfortunately, the way our telcos are set up, they aren’t fast enough to deliver an early warning,” Bashioum says.

The providers don’t have the ability to send an automated text message to the millions of people living in Southern California, for example, that could also override all the other signals that phones are processing at the same time. These texts have to go out in the narrow window between the detection of the p-wave and the arrival of the potentially deadly s-wave, or they aren’t any good. Then again, Japanese cell companies have figured it out.

The USGS and Bashiouim have been meeting with the cell providers to push the effort, but Given expects it won’t happen for another three to five years. In the meantime, he hopes to at least get more seismic sensors in the ground so that scientists can alert first responders when a big quake hits. “The closer your [seismic] station is to the earthquake, the quicker you are going to recognize it detect it and send the alert,” Given says. “Given that we don’t know where the earthquake is going to occur, we have to have sensors all over the potential area of coverage.”

Sure, he could put a lot more sensors along the San Andreas fault, which has the highest odds of another quake. But that won’t stop other quakes from hitting. For now, residents who live near seismic zones will have to make do with a real-time warning, and hope their building is up to code.


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Amazon Wants to Give Alexa a Pair of Smart Glasses—Report is developing its first wearable product—a pair of “smart glasses” that will allow you to use its digital assistant Alexa wherever you are, according to the Financial Times.

The FT said the new glasses would connect wirelessly to a smartphone and would boast a “bone-conduction audio system” allowing the person wearing the spectacles to hear Alexa’s voice without headphones.

Read: Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana Are Teaming Up

The move is a risky one, given the difficulty that the likes of Google and Apple have had in making wearables mainstream over recent years. And Amazon itself has had its fair share of expensive failures in hardware in the past —notably with its Fire smartphone, on which it took a $ 170 million write down. However, Jeff Bezos’s company feels it’s worth the risk because it can enhance in a big way a product that has already proved extremely popular. Assistants such as Alexa are an integral part of the suite of smart home products and services that is growing rapidly. The FT noted that Babak Parviz, the founder of Google’s ill-fated smart glasses project, and other former Google Glass researchers now work at Amazon’s labs.

Read: Here’s How You Can Buy Snapchat Spectacles Online

As the FT points out, a wearable and always-on Alexa allows Amazon to make good one of its key shortcomings. While an iPhone user can call Siri or an Android phone users can summon Google’s Assistant, the current Alexa app needs you to unlock the phone first. The Alexa wearable, meanwhile, would always be on.

The FT said Amazon could launch the new product before year-end.


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Bain Again Appears to Be Toshiba’s Choice for Its $22 Billion Chip Unit

Japan’s embattled Toshiba (tosbf) has selected a group led by U.S. private equity firm Bain Capital to buy its prized memory chip unit, three people with knowledge of the talks said on Wednesday, a last-minute dramatic twist to a highly contentious auction.

But it’s unclear whether the decision by Toshiba’s board will mean the sale will now proceed smoothly, as rival suitor Western Digital (wdc) has initiated legal action, arguing no deal can be done without its consent due to its position as Toshiba’s joint venture chip partner.

The Bain-led offer for the world’s No. 2 producer of NAND semiconductors is worth some $ 22 billion, sources have said.

It has partnered with South Korea’s SK Hynix (hxscl) and brought in U.S. buyers of Toshiba chips such as Apple and Dell to bolster its bid. Kingston Technology and Seagate Technology are also part of the group.

The make-up of the consortium could spell trouble ahead, said Hideki Yasuda, an analyst at Ace Research Institute.


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“The large number of stakeholders could complicate decision-making and slow down key investment decisions,” he said, adding that the participation of Toshiba clients would also sap the ability of the chips business to negotiate competitively on pricing.

Bain’s win, first reported by Reuters, has been hard fought as wrangling went down to the wire and late on Tuesday the Western Digital-backed consortium, which includes KKR & Co (kkr), appeared to be in the lead, sources said.

But the California-based firm would not agree to limits to any future stake in the chip business that had been demanded by Toshiba, said one person briefed on the matter.

Sources declined to be identified as they were not authorized to speak about discussions on the sale.

Toshiba declined to comment. A representative for Bain was not immediately available for comment while SK Hynix declined to comment.

After a slew of revised bids and changing alliances among suitors, an agreement comes not a moment too soon for Toshiba. It has has been under pressure from its lenders to clinch a deal this month to ensure enough time for regulatory reviews so that it can finish the sale by the end of the financial year.

If it doesn’t, it won’t have the billions of dollars it needs to plug a huge hole in its finances caused by its now bankrupt U.S. nuclear unit Westinghouse, and could be delisted.

Even without that problem staring it in the face, the semiconductor business requires huge amounts of investment and Toshiba’s chip unit runs the danger of losing its competitive ability as rivals roll out big capital spending plans.

A representative for Western Digital was not immediately available for comment.

The U.S. firm has already taken the dispute to the International Court of Arbitration to prevent the sale and a source with knowledge of the matter has previously said it is prepared to seek an immediate court injunction should the deal not go its way.

The Bain-led group had at one stage been chosen as preferred bidder but those talks lapsed as Japan government investors who had been part of that consortium told Toshiba they were reluctant to close a deal in the face of legal challenges posed by Western Digital.

The Bain consortium has since revised the offer, aiming to get around that problem by inviting the state-backed investors—the Innovation Network Corp of Japan (INCJ) and the Development Bank of Japan—to invest in the business only after any arbitration with Western Digital is settled.

But sources familiar with the talks have said it remains unclear if INCJ will commit to joining the consortium even when the legal dispute is resolved, casting uncertainty over the whether Japanese government will be able to prevail in its desire to have the chip business mainly under domestic control.


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