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Mars helicopter could assist future rovers

Charles Black, Founder and CEO of Sen
Jan 29, 2015, 2:50 UTC

Sen—NASA has built a prototype of a robotic helicopter which could be used on future Mars missions.

The helicopter would be used to help rovers by flying ahead each day and looking for the best places to explore, as well as helping engineers back on Earth plan the best driving route.

Although imagery from orbiters can provide rover operators with ideas on where to land and explore, a low-flying scout accompanying a rover would make the exploration more efficient.

Use of a helicopter to scout could potentially triple the distance a rover could drive in a Martian day, according to engineers working on the concept at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

"If our rover was equipped with its very own helicopter that could see over tall objects in front of it, it would allow us to make decisions much more efficiently on which way to command the rover," explained engineers at JPL in a video on the project.

The helicopter is being designed to fly for two to three minutes every day, covering 600 metres to one km depending on winds.

The JPL researchers are proposing that the helicopter be used with NASA's planned 2020 Mars rover, but no decision has been made yet, JPL told Sen in an email. Though not a formal NASA project at the moment, if approved for a future mission it would take about three years to build the drone.

The small prototype, which has a blade-span of 1.1 metres and weighs only 2.2 pounds (1 kg), is a proof of concept. Researchers at JPL have been running tests over the last year in a 25ft wide vacuum chamber at JPL designed to simulate Martian conditions.

Those are very different from Earth, with gravity only 3/8th that of here and with only about one per cent of the atmosphere compared to the surface of Earth. Despite these enironmental challenges, the tests to date have established that the drone can fly in Mars-like conditions, with the blades needing to spin at 2,400 rpm to provide lift.

A key challenge developing the chopper will be landing, which might often be on rocky terrain. "Because this thing is going to take off every day and land every day, we want to make sure we have a bulletproof landing system, and landing is the riskiest part of any mission," explained Bob Balaram, Chief Engineer at JPL's Mobility and Robotics Systems and technical lead on the study phase of the project.

Bob Balaram, in an interview with Elizabeth Howell for Sen, explained that if the helicopter got the green light to be part of the Mars 2020 rover mission, it would be housed inside the rover during transport to the Red Planet and then be deployed after the rover was safely on the ground.

Balaram explained that the helicopter would not be remotely controlled from Earth but would communicate with the rover and fly autonomously using an on-board computer, camera and other sensors (accelerometers, gyroscopes and altimeter) which would control the helicopter and maintain stable flight in the atmosphere. The autonomous chopper would derive its energy from a solar panel.

Though dubbed the 'Mars' helicopter, the technology being developed could have far greater application for future space exploration. Balaram told Sen: "This would be the first flight of a helicopter on another planet. It would actually be the first aerial flight of any vehicle on another planet.

"Beyond this first step, the future flying vehicles could be evolved for novel space exploration. It could pave the way for much more in-depth applications, such as bigger versions or larger numbers. They could even one day assist astronauts who may be remotely located at an outpost on the surface of Mars or on Phobos."

Additional reporting for this story by Elizabeth Howell.