As aerial drones around the world continuing to capture unprecedented images of Earth, engineers at NASA are looking to harness some of that technology for use on Mars.
In a video posted last week to YouTube, Mike Meacham, an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), explained how the space agency is working hard to develop a scout helicopter drone for its planned Mars 2020 rover mission.
"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," he said.
The current design concept is a helicopter drone measuring 3.6 feet from blade tip to blade tip and weighing around 2.2 pounds, according to Space.com. To deal with the complicated task of flight in the thin Martian atmosphere, engineers are having to balance rotors that can spin fast enough to achieve lift with a camera system that won't weigh the whole thing down.
"It has to be autonomous in terms of being able to fly and maintain stable flight," Bob Balaram, chief engineer of mobility and robotics systems at JPL, said in the NASA video. "And then, this system has to repeatedly take off and land on natural rocky terrain like you see out here. And then, the other one is that it has to survive the harsh environment of Mars."
Balaram says that the system is designed to fly for two-three minutes every day, taking advantage of a solar panel to both charge the unit and keep it warm through the night. Those three minutes would give the drone an opportunity to explore an area roughly 1/2 kilometer around the rover. Altitude would be limited to about 330 feet.
In terms of next steps, Balaram says they're working on hard on creating a "bullet proof landing system" to ensure no damage is done to the drone during its repeated use.
"Landing is the riskiest part of any mission," he says. "EDL (Entry, Descent, and Landing) [for the rover] has seven minutes of terror, we'll have seven seconds of terror every day."
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