Using rovers has done wonders to open up Mars exploration, but traveling at a rate of about 10 mi (16 km) every four and half years is still a bit limiting, so NASA"s Langley Research Center is looking at expanding that range by equipping future missions with autonomous aerial drones. These electric-powered aircraft would work in conjunction with rovers to cover much more ground much more quickly and to directly investigate interesting features some distance from base without having to depend on telescopic observation.
Still in the prototype stage, the Mars drones are designed as rechargeable Vertical TakeOff and Landing (VTOL) aircraft that would be able to carry out long-range missions without human intervention. Langley says that they are based on new motor and battery technologies that would enable multiple flights over large areas of the Red Planet and would carry advanced mapping and remote sensor systems.
The idea is that the drones would be sent to Mars using NASA's base station lander and rover combination. A pair of electric-powered drones would be installed inside the rover, which would act as a tender for the autonomous aircraft. When needed, the rover would use a robotic arm to remove one of the drones and place it on the ground. The drone would then take off and carry out its mission.
The prop-driven drones are specially adapted to the thin atmosphere of Mars and can transition between vertical flight for takeoff, hovering and landing; and horizontal flight to cover long distances quickly and efficiently. With the ability to maneuver precisely without human control, the drones would be able to explore lava tubes and deep canyons using visual odometry to map the area and decide on how to safely negotiate obstacles.
When it has completed its mission, the drone would land near the rover, which would roll over to retrieve it and return it to its docking unit for recharging.
The Mars drones have already moved beyond the concept stage and prototypes are undergoing low-pressure chamber flight tests at Langley, while indoor and outdoor flight tests of other prototypes to develop flight surfaces and control systems for autonomous navigation, vertical take off, and transition between vertical and horizontal flight are also underway.
In addition to aiding unmanned missions, NASA sees such drones as acting as scouts for manned missions looking for suitable areas to erect habitats.
The video below introduces the Mars concept drone.