Apple patents active fall protection to give iPhones a soft landing

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Apple has patented technology to detect when its gadgets are falling, and give them the softest landing possible ... parachutes not included (Photo composite: Shutterstock [1], [2])

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Apple has been awarded a fascinating patent on technology that can detect when a smartphone has been dropped, work out how far it is to the ground, and forcibly adjust the phone's rotation in mid-air so that it lands in a way least likely to damage critical components.

United States Patent 8,903,509: "Protective mechanism for an electronic device" was awarded yesterday to Apple's Nicholas King and Fletcher Rothkopf.

It covers a device that can use its motion sensors to detect a free-fall situation, and make calculations about its trajectory and point of impact, and then deploy mechanical countermeasures to alter its orientation and angular momentum as it falls.

Some methods named in the patent include the movement of a weight inside the device, the use of rotating motors (such as those used to create the vibrate function) to alter angular momentum, and the deployment of aerodynamic airfoils to reduce the impact velocity.

There's also the option for the device to retract, move or alter components when an impact is likely, or grab onto a headphone cable tightly when a fall is detected, or even to produce angular thrust using tiny gas cylinders.

Perhaps my favorite idea is the ejector battery, in which the device jettisons its battery to alter its trajectory. That's right, it actually falls to bits before it even hits the ground.

Just patenting the ideas doesn't mean they'll be popping up on the iPhone 7, but it's always interesting to see what blue-sky thinking is being employed. And since screen-shattering drops are probably the most common cause of death for portable electronics, it's not hard to imagine next-gen devices with self-protective measures in the next 10 years. Perhaps a phone that can enclose itself in a zip-loc bag when it detects it's falling into a toilet?

Mind you, the skeptic might suggest certain companies would program their handsets to check for date of purchase and warranty status before deciding whether to rotate towards or away from the critical components.

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