Mars Ingenuity Helicopter: Why drones are the future of space exploration

NASA’s Mars Ingenuity Helicopter is set to take flight on the Red Planet, the first time a flying vehicle has taken to the skies of another planet. 

Mars Ingenuity Helicopter: Why drones are the future of space exploration

By Ian Taylor

Roughly 274,000,000km away, a hitchhiker is about to make extraterrestrial history. NASA’s Mars Ingenuity Helicopter is set to take flight on the Red Planet, the first time a flying vehicle has taken to the skies of another planet. 

Ingenuity Helicopter piggybacked to Mars on the Perseverance rover, which successfully landed in February. After deploying from the rover, it’s now waiting to stretch its long but lightweight wings and take a look around. 

If it succeeds, Ingenuity will truly live up to its name. This is ambitious, experimental technology that has to clear a mind-boggling series of obstacles if it’s to rise from the rust-coloured dust of the Jezero Crater. No wonder observers are comparing it to the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903. 

“It’s the first powered flight on another planet, another body outside of Earth,” says Prof Sanjeev Gupta, a geologist at Imperial College London and a strategic planner for the Perseverance mission. 

As well as designing a craft that can fly in the low gravity and low atmospheric pressure on Mars – all without the kind of navigational aids we have here on Earth – there’s also the fact that Ingenuity is an awfully long way from home.

“It’s being done totally autonomously because obviously there’s a time delay from Mars,” says Gupta. “In rover operations, what we do is we plan the next day of activities. The controllers don’t actually control them, they write computer commands based on code that’s already in Ingenuity. And it works kind of like a smartphone. We uplink parameters to make things happen.”

As a geologist, Gupta says he would love to be using Ingenuity to carry out science, but it’s primarily a technology demonstrator. Drones could revolutionise space exploration in much the same way that they have changed industries here on Earth, from search and rescue to delivery systems. 

“I use drones all the time,” Gupta says. “That’s only really happened on Earth in the last few years when they’ve become light enough and small enough. As a geologists, you’re looking at rock formations, studying the landscape but we’re stuck on the ground. Drones can take images, survey things on a larger scale, scout ahead and get images of places we can’t get to on the ground.” 

Their impact could be even greater on another planet where every movement for a robotic rover is perilous. “With a rover, we’re very limited with where we can go.

If there’s a small hill in the way we can’t see over them. A drone would let us see over that hill and scout the terrain that is otherwise masked by other topography. It’s game-changing to remove some of those limitations and make exploration much more efficient.” 

NASA already has a much bigger drone in the works. The Dragonfly spacecraft is plotting a course to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, in 2027. It won’t get there until 2036 but when it does, the rotorcraft will fly from spot to spot looking for signs of alien life in one of the places best-suited to supporting it in the Solar System.

“The first science we do on other planets is always going to be geology, looking at rock formations, looking for evidence of life, so ensuring this technology works is a massive boost,” says Gupta.

Dragonfly is heading for an equatorial region of Titan known as Shangri-La, where it will land on mysterious dunes before investigating ground conditions that astrobiologists believe are similar to the primordial soup in which microbial life first developed on Earth.

Equipped with eight rotor blades, it will then fly to dozens of locations covering a distance that is almost double what all the Mars rovers to date have managed. 

Like Ingenuity, it will also be tailor-made to suit the conditions at its destination – only Titan should offer better flying conditions than Mars. It has low gravity, little wind and a dense atmosphere, all of which mean it’s much more efficient to fly a heavier crafter than Ingenuity using basic rotor propulsion.

Many other flying drones are expected to follow, but first Ingenuity has to prove that it can fly with the first test flight scheduled for 11 April. “It’s a tiny helicopter,” Gupta says. “It’s only going to fly a few metres for a few seconds, but the impact is huge.” 

Originally published at Science focus