Air foils vs air bags: Amazon and Apple want to make sure you never bust your phone again

brokeniphonelApple and Amazon.com are on a collision course in all sorts of businesses — from digital music to e-readers. Now, the two tech titans are trying to make sure that your phone avoids collisions, eliminating cracked smartphone screens for good.

Patent filings revealed today indicate that Apple is trying to develop a new system that would detect when an iPhone or other device is in free flight, potentially altering the course of its fall so as to avoid a cracked screen or other damage. The abstract notes: “The protective mechanism is in communication with the processor and is configured to selectively alter a center of mass of the electronic device. Additionally, the electronic device also includes an enclosure configured to at least partially enclose the processor and the sensor.”

When we first heard about the patent filing, one thing immediately came to mind. Last December, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and others were granted a patent for a safety monitoring system that uses a gyroscope, camera, infrared beam, radar and other sensors to detect such things as motion, orientation and distance from other objects — then determine in a split second if the device is at risk of damage from impact.

One idea as part of Bezos’ system was to put mini airbags in the device in order to protect the phone. See: Jeff Bezos wants to put an airbag in your smartphone.

Apple’s patent filing doesn’t have airbags per se. But it could utilize an “air foil.”

The filing notes:

“Yet another example, the protective mechanism may activate an air foil to change the aerodynamics of the mobile electronic device. The air foil may help to reduce a velocity of the free-fall of the device by producing a lift force. In this example, the air foil may help to reduce the force of impact as the device hits the surface, as the momentum of the device may be reduced.”

USPTO filing via Apple Insider

USPTO filing via Apple Insider

The Apple engineers have other ideas on how to protect the device, including a “thrust mechanism.”

The thrust mechanism may produce a thrust force in one or multiple directions in order to reorient the device. For example, the thrust mechanism may include a gas canister that may deploy the compressed gas outside of the device to change its orientation.

Wow, the next-generation smartphone could look more like a space rocket. But given how many cracked iPhone screens are laying around the Cook household, I think Amazon and Apple might be on to something here.

The Apple patent was first filed in September 2011, and lists inventors Nicholas King and Fletcher Rothkopf.

Previously on GeekWire5 reasons I think you’re nuts if you own a naked iPhone