The tiny sensor that detects which way a smartphone is facing and orientates the screen can also pick up strong vibrations like those in an earthquake, scientists at Italy's National Institute of Geoscience and Vulcanology said.
The smartphone chip was found to accurately record data on earthquakes greater than magnitude five when close to the epicenter, Britain's Daily Telegraph reported Tuesday.
The Micro Electro-Mechanical Systems accelerometer is a chip found in most smartphones and laptops; the researchers tested a version of the chip found in some iPhones, the LIS331DLH MEMS accelerometer, and compared it to the performance of a dedicated earthquake sensor.
The chip had "excellent frequency and phase response" in picking up earthquakes of greater than magnitude five on the Richter scale, they found.
Since these sensors are in "common use in mobile phones" and are likely to improve in the future they could be used in rescue operations, they said, as GPS location data from the phones could be sent into a central command point with information on exactly where tremors were felt and helping emergency officials determine where response services should be sent.