On October 14th, people around the world watched as Felix Baumgartner, a former Austrian paratrooper, literally jumped into history. Baumgartner jumped from a platform 24 miles (128,100 feet) above the Earth, setting the record for longest free-fall and becoming the 1st person to break the sound barrier without vehicular protection in the process. The Red Bull sponsored stunt was five years in the making, with its execution looking more like a NASA mission than the brand’s typical high-octane style stunt. How did Red Bull give Baumgartner ‘wings’ to accomplish the historical feat?
An incredible amount of planning went into the historic jump; the Red Bull ‘Stratos A-Team’ included experts with decades of experience in science, engineering, and medicine. The members of the team weren’t focused on setting world records, they were focused on the possibilities for after the jump- how the mission pushed the limits of science and technology and could provide beneficial for future space programs. Every aspect of Baumgartner’s jump was analyzed, resulting in a highly advanced, ‘smart’ jump.
Baumgartner’s suit was his first line of defense in the fall. The David Clark Company, an American electronics and textiles manufacturer, engineered the special pressurized ‘Stratos’ suit worn by Felix.
While similar to the pressure suits used in space shuttle missions, the Stratos Suit had to be modified in several ways. Because Felix jumped from such a high altitude, there was a risk he would suffer from ebullism, a condition in which small gas bubbles would form within his tissues and organs. To prevent this from happening, the pressurized suit was equipped with a smart controller that automatically regulated pressure according to altitude during both the ascent and free fall, maintaining a constant environment equivalent to the conditions at about 35,000 feet. And while Baumgartner was the first human to break the sound barrier without a vehicle, in many ways the suit he was wearing wasn’t too far off from one. A lot of the systems built into his space-age ensemble—life-support, GPS beacon, communications and telemetry gear, and a unit for measuring inertia—would be standard issue in any modern aircraft. Most of this equipment was housed in a chest pack the size of a slim shoebox—a testament to the far-reaching benefits of miniaturization in electronics (that’s some of what our friends in the Intel labs have been working on for decades!).
Numerous safety features were also built into the suit including a parachute outfitted with smart sensors that could detect if Baumgartner experienced 3.5Gs for more than six seconds. If this had happened, the parachute would have automatically deployed to stabilize him.. A second parachute was also equipped with the ability to open automatically if Felix’s speed exceeded more than 115 feet per second by the time he reached an altitude of 2000 feet, an indication that something had gone wrong and Felix hadn’t been able to manually open the parachute.
Baumgartner’s helmet was also incredibly ‘smart.’ The helmet provided life-sustaining water and oxygen to Felix during his minutes-long descent, and equally as important, the helmet was the avenue by which he saw where he was going. An integrated heating circuit kept the visor ice and fog free, and a mechanism made it impossible to accidentally unlock.
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