In November 2015 I wrote about an idea to fly a robotic drone helicopter on Mars as a part of the next rover mission, currently referred to as the Mars 2020 mission. On May 11th, 2018, NASA confirmed that Mars 2020 will now include the drone, to be carried by the rover as a technology demonstrator.
The unit, under development since 2013, is quite small; the body is the size of a box of tissues, and the contra-rotating rotor blades have a diameter of a metre (39 inches). Weighing some 1.8 kg (4.4 lbs), the drone will be battery-powered, using solar cells to recharge the batteries, which will also power a dedicated heating source to help it survive the cold Martian nights.
The drone will be carried underneath the rover, which will used the same “skycrane” landing mechanism as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Curiosity. Once a suitable location for its deployment is found, the rover will lower it to the ground and move away to let the drone commence its first flight.
Up to five flights are planned over a 30-day test campaign. The first will be very short-duration, enough to allow the helicopter to ascend to around 3 metres (9 feet) and hover for 30 seconds while the flight systems are checked out. Later flights will last up to 90 seconds and travel as far as a few hundred metres before landing to allow the solar panels to recharge the battery system.
Flying any sort of aircraft on Mars is a significant challenge. For example, the atmosphere of Mars is only one percent that of Earth, or the equivalent of being 30 km (100,000 feet) above the surface of the Earth – more the double the altitude any helicopter has been able to fly. This means the drone has to be both very lightweight and extremely powerful for its size if it is to get airborne on Mars.
To make it fly at that low atmospheric density, we had to scrutinize everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possibly be.
– Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager
To achieve lift, The helicopter’s blades will rotate at up to 3,000 revolutions per minute, 10 times the rate of a terrestrial helicopter. The vehicle is also entirely autonomous – the time delay in Earth-Mars-Earth communications means that conventional drone flight under human control is impossible.
Instead, flight parameters will be uploaded to the Mars 2020 rover for relay to the helicopter, which will also be able to receive and act on additional instructions sent by the rover so that it doesn’t have to carry the entire flight plan within its own computer.
NASA sees Mars Helicopter as demonstrating how aerial vehicles might serve as scouts for future missions to Mars. This idea is explored in the most recent video promoting the mission, with a helicopter scanning and image the terrain around a rover.
The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers. With the added dimension of a bird’s-eye view from a ‘marscopter,’ we can only imagine what future missions will achieve.
– Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science
As a technology demonstrator,the Mars Helicopter is seen as a high-rick project, although NASA has been keen to stress that if the helicopter fails for any reason, it will not impact the overall Mars 2020 mission. Nevertheless, the news the project will be carried on the rover mission hasn’t been positively received in all quarters – including within the Mars 2020 mission itself.
I am not an advocate for the helicopter, and I don’t believe the Mars 2020 project has been an advocate for the helicopter.
– Ken Farley, project scientist for Mars 2020
The concern among the rover science team is that the helicopter’s planned 90-day test campaign will prove to be a disruption in the rover’s overall science mission. However, Farley also indicated that the rover team are working to integrate the helicopter into the rover’s mission and accommodate its requirements.