Smartphones could be used to act as early warning systems for devastating earthquakes.

This breakthrough could be especially useful in regions of the world that cannot afford higher quality earthquake warning systems, the United States Geological Survey reported.

The recent findings showed GPS sensors in smartphones could be used to create this type of warning system, even though they would be less accurate than science-grade systems. The sensors have the ability to detect permanent ground movement caused by fault motion.

"The U.S. earthquake early warning system is being built on our high-quality scientific earthquake networks, but crowd-sourced approaches can augment our system and have real potential to make warnings possible in places that don't have high-quality networks," said Douglas Given, USGS coordinator of the ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning System.

The researchers tested this method on a hypothetical magnitude 7 earthquake and data from the 2011 magnitude 9 Tohoku-oki, Japan earthquake. They found the crowd-sourced EEW could be achieved with only a small group of people in a given area contributing information through their smartphones. Data from fewer than 5,000 people in a large metropolitan area is believed to be enough to trigger a warning before strong shaking occurs.

"The use of mobile phone fleets as a distributed sensor network -- and the statistical insight that many imprecise instruments can contribute to the creation of more precise measurements -- has broad applicability including great potential to benefit communities where there isn't an existing network of scientific instruments," said Bob Iannucci of Carnegie Mellon University, Silicon Valley.

The findings were published in a recent edition of the journal Science Advances.