Jet Propulsion Laboratory Collaborates with Local Company to Build First Drone to Fly on Mars

Published : Thursday, July 5, 2018 | 4:59 AM

Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena are currently working on a project to build the first drone helicopter that will fly on Mars in less than three years.

In collaboration with AeroVironment Inc., a Monrovia-based company which specializes in unmanned aircraft systems and tactical missile systems, JPL has built two Engineering Development Model Mars Helicopters that have both passed rigorous tests, paving the way for the development and fabrication of a final, Mars-bound version.

Mars Helicopter integrates a rotor, landing gear, fuselage shell and solar panel substrate manufactured by AeroVironment Inc. with a JPL-developed fuselage composed of flight avionics, onboard power, telecom, flight control and sensors. When a final version is ready, it will demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet.

One of the models was used for flight demonstration in JPL’s large 25-foot space simulator, and the other for environmental testing – including thermal tests to ensure the vehicle can endure the frigid Mars nights, and vibration tests to make sure it is rugged enough to survive launch.

AeroVironment is currently building the flight versions of their subsystems which will be integrated with other subsystems into the vehicle that JPL is building, according to an AeroVironment press release. The plan is for JPL to then install the finished Mars Helicopter into the Mars 2020 rover for its ride to a Martian landing site that still has to be determined.

Mars 2020 is currently scheduled to launch in July 2020. It is expected to reach Mars in February 2021.

“NASA has a proud history of firsts,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in May as JPL tested the models. “The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling. The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery, and exploration missions to Mars.”

“AeroVironment’s deep, rich and diverse history of innovation combined with our experience with near-space aircraft like Pathfinder and Helios make us uniquely suited to collaborate with NASA and JPL on this historic, interplanetary venture,” said AeroVironment President and Chief Executive Officer Wahid Nawabi.

The company first developed subscale Mars helicopter prototypes to test and demonstrate the feasibility of lift in the thin Martian atmosphere. In May 2016, AeroVironment delivered a Mars Helicopter rotor and landing gear prototype to JPL, which was integrated with a JPL-developed controller.

JPL demonstrated free flight in a simulated Mars atmosphere, proving that it is possible to fly on the Red Planet.

In the fall of 2017, AeroVironment delivered major helicopter subsystems, which JPL integrated into their Mars-representative engineering development models.

The Mars Helicopter project is led by NASA JPL with team members across JPL, AeroVironment, NASA Ames and NASA Langley.

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