NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) wants to build a helicopter drone to send to the red planet. Despite the fact rover teams have lots of data about the Martian surface, they still have difficulties to moving it around. The Mars surface is extremely uneven and has lots of ridges and valleys that make it difficult to navigate around. This is why the JPL is proposing the Mars Helicopter as a solution, an autonomous drone that could triple the distances that Mars rovers can drive in a Martian day.
The helicopter would be used to fly ahead of a rover where it could scout the land and relay data back to engineers on Earth who can better plan where to direct the rover.
Images from the helicopter could also be studied to find select features that the NASA team could look at in more detail.
Bob Balaram, a roboticist at JPL said,“There’s the challenge of keeping the whole mass of the system small so that we don’t overwhelm the lift capability of this system.”
“It has to be autonomous in terms of being able to fly and maintain stable flight,” he continued. “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.”
While prototypes are currently being tested, there is still lots of work to do. The biggest problem is Mars’ much thinner atmosphere and weaker gravity which makes it difficult to take off and land.