Modern HDDs prevent power interruptions or other malfunctions from landing its heads in the data zone by parking the heads either in a landing zone or by unloading (i.e., load/unload) the heads. Some early PC HDDs did not park the heads automatically and they would land on data. In some other early units the user manually parked the heads by running a program to park the HDD's heads.
A landing zone is an area of the platter usually near its inner diameter (ID), where no data are stored. This area is called the Contact Start/Stop (CSS) zone. Disks are designed such that either a spring or, more recently, rotational inertia in the platters is used to park the heads in the case of unexpected power loss. In this case, the spindle motor temporarily acts as a generator, providing power to the actuator.
Spring tension from the head mounting constantly pushes the heads towards the platter. While the disk is spinning, the heads are supported by an air bearing and experience no physical contact or wear. In CSS drives the sliders carrying the head sensors (often also just called heads) are designed to survive a number of landings and takeoffs from the media surface, though wear and tear on these microscopic components eventually takes its toll. Most manufacturers design the sliders to survive 50,000 contact cycles before the chance of damage on startup rises above 50%. However, the decay rate is not linear: when a disk is younger and has had fewer start-stop cycles, it has a better chance of surviving the next startup than an older, higher-mileage disk (as the head literally drags along the disk's surface until the air bearing is established). For example, the Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 series of desktop hard disks are rated to 50,000 start-stop cycles, in other words no failures attributed to the head-platter interface were seen before at least 50,000 start-stop cycles during testing.
Around 1995 IBM pioneered a technology where a landing zone on the disk is made by a precision laser process (Laser Zone Texture = LZT) producing an array of smooth nanometer-scale "bumps" in a landing zone, thus vastly improvingstiction and wear performance. This technology is still largely in use today (2008), predominantly in desktop and enterprise (3.5 inch) drives. In general, CSS technology can be prone to increased stiction (the tendency for the heads to stick to the platter surface), e.g. as a consequence of increased humidity. Excessive stiction can cause physical damage to the platter and slider or spindle motor.
Load/Unload technology relies on the heads being lifted off the platters into a safe location, thus eliminating the risks of wear and stiction altogether. The first HDD RAMAC and most early disk drives used complex mechanisms to load and unload the heads. Modern HDDs use ramp loading, first introduced by Memorex in 1967, to load/unload onto plastic "ramps" near the outer disk edge.
All HDDs today still use one of these two technologies listed above. Each has a list of advantages and drawbacks in terms of loss of storage area on the disk, relative difficulty of mechanical tolerance control, non-operating shock robustness, cost of implementation, etc.
Addressing shock robustness, IBM also created a technology for their ThinkPad line of laptop computers called the Active Protection System. When a sudden, sharp movement is detected by the built-in accelerometer in the Thinkpad, internal hard disk heads automatically unload themselves to reduce the risk of any potential data loss or scratch defects. Applelater also utilized this technology in their PowerBook, iBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook line, known as the Sudden Motion Sensor. Sony, HP with their HP 3D DriveGuard and Toshiba have released similar technology in their notebook computers.