New Laser Sensors for Post-Earthquake Emergency Response

In early July of this year, Southern California was rattled by a massive earthquake that registered at a 6.4 magnitude--the largest they have experienced in nearly 2 decades. The earthquake and its aftershocks caused significant damage to buildings, roads and gas lines in the affected areas, reinforcing the need for more advanced earthquake recovery technology. 

Amid stories of residents sleeping outdoors to avoid getting trapped in unstable structures, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has recently developed a faster, more efficient tool for evaluating the safety of a building’s infrastructure after an earthquake.

This summer, the Lab created the discrete diode position sensor (DDPS). When in use, the DDPS, a type of optical sensor, projects a laser light across a building, hitting detectors placed on adjacent floors that determine the light’s baseline position. When an earthquake hits, the sensor can tell whether the laser beam’s position has changed, alerting first responders of the intensity of the damage. 

With the spread of 5G technology, data can be sent to first responders almost immediately. This helps them make quicker and more accurate decisions about building occupancy, evacuations and safety evaluations. It helps eliminate the need for time-consuming and challenging manual inspections of the hundreds, potentially thousands, of damaged buildings. This is especially critical with buildings needed during emergencies, such as hospitals. 

The DDPS, which has undergone its preliminary testing (including a very rigorous shake table test), is now in the works for deployment. First up: testing it in a building at the Berkeley Lab that sits adjacent to the Hayward Fault--one of the most dangerous faults in the entire country.

In the future, there are plans to install DDPS within buildings in high-risk earthquake areas. From a government perspective, the sensors’ deployment is right-on-time, as post-earthquake building inspection and reoccupation is becoming a central focus of emergency response planning.

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