Space

NASA developing drones to take to Martian skies

NASA developing drones to take...
A drone under development at NASA would be used to explore vast areas of Mars
A drone under development at NASA would be used to explore vast areas of Mars
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The concept drone would recharge on a rover
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The concept drone would recharge on a rover
A drone being recovered by a rover
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A drone being recovered by a rover
The drone could explore lava tubes
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The drone could explore lava tubes
A drone under development at NASA would be used to explore vast areas of Mars
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A drone under development at NASA would be used to explore vast areas of Mars
The drone would have advanced sensors
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The drone would have advanced sensors
Drones could act as scouts for manned missions
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Drones could act as scouts for manned missions
A drone prototype undergoing low-pressure flight tests
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A drone prototype undergoing low-pressure flight tests
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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.

Drones could act as scouts for manned missions
Drones could act as scouts for manned missions

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.

A drone being recovered by a rover
A drone being recovered by a rover

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.

Source: NASA

NASA Langley Engineers Propose Mars Flyer Concept

View gallery - 7 images
5 comments
JamesDemello
Too risky. Better to do small crawlers.
SimonClarke
While it is true that Mars has an atmosphere, the surface level air pressure is equal to 100,000 feet in our atmosphere. Aircraft need air to fly in and with less than 1 psi (less than 0.25 psi actually) it will be difficult to design an aircraft that will fly in that thin air.
Bob
Why can't the drones be designed to just land back on the rover? The prop blast could be used to blow the Martian dust off the solar panels.
Majki
Internal of the drone could be filled with Hellium to help it with thin air (weight).
Douglas Bennett Rogers
It looks like it is flying at 100,000 ft. pressure, which is very impressive.