When humans first set foot on Mars, they're going to want to be sure that the equipment is up to the task. To be as prepared as possible, the European Space Agency (ESA) has been testing equipment and techniques and training astronauts in cave systems here on Earth. The group's latest tool is a crash-proof drone that could one day help Martian settlers explore lava tubes on the Red Planet by mapping out tight spots humans can't reach.

Every year, ESA holds a program it calls CAVES – a clumsy acronym that stands for "Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising human behaviour and performance Skills." The aim of the course is to teach astronauts the kind of team-building and safety skills they'll need in an environment that mimics the conditions in space as closely as possible. With their tight spaces, isolation, and lack of sunlight, caves make a useful test bed.

"We now want astronauts to take part in existing scientific caving and geological expeditions – scientific exploration does not get more real than this," says Loredana Bessone, course designer for the CAVES program.

Lending a hand in this year's expedition was Flyability's Elios drone, which is designed to be basically crash-proof thanks to a protective frame around the body. It's made for conducting visual inspections of confined and hard-to-reach places – like underneath bridges, inside pipes, and around tall structures – where a normal drone runs the risk of collision. The concept won a Drones for Good award in 2015, and last year proved its worth exploring jagged crevasses in the Swiss Alps.

Deliberately bumping into walls to navigate, the Elios drone helped the CAVES participants explore the La Cucchiara caves in Sicily, mapping out the cavern system beyond where they themselves could go.

"The drone used its thermal camera to map how the cave continued all the way to an unexplored area featuring water, impossible to reach for humans," says Francesco Sauro, ESA course coordinator. "These tests will help us understand which technologies can be used in future exploration of lava tubes on Mars, for example."

ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano, who participated in the CAVES program this year, gives a presentation on how the course can aid space exploration in the video below.

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