Skip to main content

Early earthquake warnings with 5G

Low latency, edge computing and high processing speed make a critical difference

Natural disasters are both devastating and inevitable. An earthquake can destroy homes and factories, schools and shops, bridges and roads. Electrical sparks from short circuits often start fires. Public services such as electricity, transit and communications are threatened. Water pipes may burst, causing a shortage of clean drinking water. The  economy is also impacted, as governments fund repairs, provide for victims and deal with potential market disruptions.

The most earthquake-prone region in the country, Canada’s Pacific coast is also home to leading-edge research on seismic activity and methods to counteract or mitigate its most extreme consequences. While it is not possible to prevent a disaster, it is feasible to anticipate risks and automate responses.

Rogers has made a multi-million-dollar investment into exploring the practical applications of 5G wireless technology, with a particular focus on public safety. Our partnership with The University of British Columbia includes a study of early earthquake warning systems that can help to minimize damage and save lives.

How can an early warning be effective?

Earthquakes happen quickly—within perhaps 20 seconds—and every millisecond counts. Even a few seconds’ warning can make a difference in the outcome of a destructive earthquake. Fire halls and ambulance bays can be automatically opened; traffic can be prevented from entering bridges or tunnels; planes can be diverted and trains halted; surgeries can be suspended; and critical infrastructure such as the power grid or transit system can be rerouted.

The UBC research project

The research lab, headed by Professor Jose Marti of UBC’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, gathers and interprets live data from the province’s 2.3 million smart meters using predictive AI algorithms. “My research work has concentrated on wave propagation systems,” says Professor Marti. “Strong earthquakes do happen: at least one per year in B.C. The idea of having this early warning system is we can see where the earthquake wave is going and how strong it is.”

The research team has simulated earthquake activity through ‘shaker’ devices that can be installed on any structure. A sensing, transmitting and receiving board is based on the Raspberry PI device, which resembles a palm-sized computer. This board is populated with a seismic sensor and an IFT module that communicates with the Rogers wireless 5G  network. The smart meters would light up along the earthquake’s path, indicating through colour-coded alerts where the waves will be the most powerful. This insight into the earthquake’s location and force enables a quick reaction that can protect people, property and infrastructure.

The essential element of low latency

Previous generations of networks lacked the speed to correctly determine the frequencies of earthquakes, resulting in errors and false readings. Unlike LTE, 5G network results are almost the same as raw data retrieved with 0 milliseconds latency. “In 5G, the error between one sensor and the other [is] maybe one or two milliseconds, as opposed to 10 milliseconds [with] LTE. The lower the latency that the technology can offer us, the more accurately we can capture the wave forms,” says Professor Marti. “That information is very important to the disaster responders, [and] time is of the essence.”

Professor Marti acknowledges that the amount of network traffic will be enormous, but points out that it is well handled through the multi-access edge computing (MEC) platform. “We bring the information to the MEC and then we have to synchronize the waves. Once it’s been delivered to the MEC computer, we can predict the amount of damage that will happen all across the city.” Because the system demands an extensive network of sensors, he suggests that one strategy to deal with large systems is to create sub-areas, allocating different MEC computers to different parts of the city.

From theoretical innovation to practical application

Developing a solution must go hand-in-hand with delivering it to the community. “We can do a lot on paper, but unless we take it to the field, it doesn’t have any value”, Professor Marti admits. “The field would be the City of Vancouver in order to make use of this approach.”

Neel Dayal, Senior Director of Innovation & Partnerships at Rogers Communications sees “different 5G use cases for different environments,” with a focus on the specific needs of different regions. “Because we’re a national player, we’re focused on solving problems across the entire country. Basically, any application can get some benefit from 5G.”

Professor Marti is enthusiastic about working with Rogers and the 5G network, particularly how low latency and high processing speed can help create a truly effective way to reduce the damage from earthquakes. “The people at Rogers are very knowledgeable and have helped us a lot with the interaction between what’s physically possible with the technology and what, algorithmically, we can do. We cannot prevent disasters, but my hope is that, with the tools we’re developing here, we will be better at managing them. And therefore, we will save lives.” 

Find our more about the future of 5G, including our partnership work on smart traffic and smart mining as well as our 5G work with the University of Waterloo.

Learn more about Rogers and 5G.