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Apple looks to protect dropped iPhones by shifting their orientation mid-flight

Source: USPTO

An Apple invention discovered on Thursday describes a system that could potentially save the most fragile components of an iPhone, such as the glass screen, by detecting when a device is falling and shifting the handset's center of mass to control its landing.

Published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Apple's "Protective Mechanism for an Electronic Device" patent filing looks to alleviate some or all of the damage when a device is accidentally dropped. While the invention can be applied to any electronic device with a processor, from a tablet to a laptop, it is most well-suited for those portables that users carry with them on a daily basis. For example, Apple's iPhone is specifically mentioned in the patent language.

In order to work, the system needs a sensor or sensor array that can detect when a device is in freefall and how it is positioned relative to the ground. These can be simple gyroscopes, accelerometers or position sensors, but the patent also notes more advanced components like GPS and imaging sensors may be employed. Coupled to the sensor is a processor that can help determine a freefall state, including how fast a device is falling, how far away it is from the ground and time to impact, among other metrics. Statistics of various fall heights, speeds and other data can be stored on system memory to aid the processor in making a decision on how best to land the device.

Illustration of mass motor drive with attached mass.

Finally, the system requires a mechanism to either reorientate the device while in flight, or otherwise protect certain sensitive device components in the event of a fall. Here, the patent calls for a number of solutions, including the movement of a weighted mass within the device, a means to "grip a plug" to prevent a freefall, lift foils that can be extended out from the surface of a device, and a thrust mechanism such as a can of gas, among other countermeasures.

Headphone plug clamp system.

Basically, the sensor send signals to the processor, which determines if a device is in a freefall state. If such a determination is made, the protective mechanism is deployed. Many of the embodiments focus on repositioning the device while in flight to have it impact a non-vital area or portion of the unit. In order to lessen the blow, or avoid it entirely, the protective mechanism can substantially change the angular velocity, device positioning or device rotation.

From the patent overview:

In one example, the protective mechanism is configured to alter the device orientation as the device is falling. This may allow a less vulnerable portion of the device to impact the surface at the end of a freefall. For example, the protective mechanism may be activated to rotate the device so that it may impact a surface on its edge, rather than on a screen portion.

Alternative embodiments focus on using internal motors used to grasp onto inserted cables to break a fall, extend air foils or aerodynamic lift members, and retract vital parts like switches. In addition, other options call for mechanisms that forcefully jettison cables which may be pulling a device off a table or weighty power supplies. In one example, a gas canister is used as thrust to counter gravitational acceleration.

Lift members can be extended from the device chassis to provide aerodynamic lift during freefall.

Such a complex system is unlikely to be integrated into an iPhone anytime soon, especially given the handset's increasing trend toward a thin-and-light design, but future iterations or products may see a similar method employed as component miniaturization technologies advance.

Apple's protective mechanism application was filed in September 2011, and credits Nicholas V. King and Fletcher Rothkopf; Fletcher as its inventors.