Using technology found in cellphones, inexpensive sensors might one day soon save lives by giving advance warning of deadly landslides in at-risk areas around the world. The wireless test sensors are installed around an active landslide zone. A team from the Atmospheric Science Department at The University of Alabama in Huntsville is studying the sensors to see whether they can provide useful information about soil stability and the likelihood of an impending landslide.

In addition to weather instruments, the sensors also use off-the-shelf technology that was developed for other uses, such as motion detectors that also are used in cellphones (for game controllers or to tell the phone how it is oriented) and in robotics. The sensor that tells when the soil is so saturated by rain that it might become unstable was developed for irrigation systems, to tell when a field has received enough water.

The sensors connect to the Internet using inexpensive cellphone connections, so scientists at the university can monitor their instruments without needing to either run wires into remote areas or have someone visit the sensor boxes on a regular basis. The sensors were developed by a University Space Research Association (USRA) scientist, Karthik Srinivasan, who invented them for NASA's SERVIR program. The sensors were created as a low-cost tool for calibrating an airborne instrument that measures soil moisture. Because they were self-contained, those first sensors could be moved from spot to spot as needed to gather data on the ground at the same time the airborne instrument was overhead.