Pending a decision by NASA over the next several weeks, the next mission to Mars may give us an unprecedented bird's-eye view of the red planet.

Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have spent years developing a specialized drone that may serve as an aerial scout for the upcoming Mars 2020 rover. Called the "Mars Flyer Concept," the autonomous aircraft has already undergone successful flights here on Earth in conditions that mimic Mars' atmospheric pressure and gravity.

"The system has been built, it’s been ground tested, and then we put it into a chamber that was backfilled at Mars atmosphere (conditions)," Jim Watzin, director of NASA’s robotic Mars exploration program, said in a presentation last month. "Some parts were removed from the helicopter to compensate for the 1g (gravity) field to get the proper relationship of mass and acceleration at Mars, and we did controlled takeoffs, slewing, translations, hovers and controlled landings in the chamber. We’ve done that multiple times."

The Mars Flyer Concept in flight at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The Mars Flyer Concept in flight at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (Photo: NASA JPL)

It's all about the tools

The Mars Flyer would offer a nice complement to the slate of instruments approved for the Mars 2020 rover. In addition to advanced mapping services, the 4-pound drone would also offer quick opportunities to explore the surrounding terrain. While the Mars 2020 rovers tops out at 500 feet per hour, the Mars Flyer could cover about 1,000 feet over a single two minute flight.

"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," Mike Meacham, an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), explained in a video.

As shown in the video below, the Flyer has the ability to perform vertical takeoffs and then shift into a horizontal position for efficient flights over long distances. Two cameras would be included, one for surveying, landing, and imaging (with resolutions 10x higher than current orbital cameras above the red planet) and the other for tracking the position of the sun for accurate navigation. The later is particularly important as Mars' inconsistent magnetic field does not lend itself to utilizing a compass.

JPL is presently requesting new funding to continue developing the Mars Flyer for future missions to the planet. NASA will also soon make the decision over whether or not to include a version of the Flyer on the Mars 2020 launch in July 2020. If the agency gets the green light, Watzin believes the mission could serve as an excellent proof of concept for the aerial vehicle.

"Looking forward to an operational system, we don’t see anything in the architecture that is exceptionally life-limiting," he added. "If we were to fly the helicopter as a tech demonstration on something like Mars 2020, we would envision a very small number of flights to prove the aerodynamic and handling characteristics, and the concept of operations, and that would be the end of the demonstration."

NASA's consideration for the drone comes as the agency has initiated the assembly of the Mars 2020 rover. Once on the Martian surface in January 2021, the rover will study the planet's geology, search for signs of ancient microbial life, and even scout potential sites for future human colonies.

You can see a behind-the-scenes, 360-degree video (drag your mouse to look around) of the Rover's construction at JPL’s High Bay 1 below.

Michael d'Estries ( @michaeldestries ) covers science, technology, art, and the beautiful, unusual corners of our incredible world.