Drone helicopter lands on Mars attached to belly of Perseverance rover

Ingenuity, also known as the Mars Helicopter, landed on the underbelly of the Perseverance rover. More than a month after the landing, it will perform five test flights in the extremely thin Martian atmosphere. (NASA)

Perseverance rover landed safely on Mars on Thursday, Feb. 18, at 3:56 p.m. ET, carrying on its belly a 4-pound drone helicopter known as Ingenuity.

It will be the first powered flight by a drone on any planet beyond Earth, after surviving the rover’s landing. In coming weeks it will perform its test functions in the thin Martian atmosphere, about 1% the density of Earth’s atmosphere.

The extreme low pressure and cold of Mars, down to minus 130 degrees F at night at the landing site at Jezero Crater, will test the resilience of the drone and its electronics. 

“One of the first things Ingenuity has to do when it gets to Mars is just survive its first night,” said Tim Canham, Ingenuity operations lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. There’s even a programmable thermostat on board to keep it warm. The drone will charge itself with a solar panel atop its rotors.

Ingenuity relies on counter-rotating coaxial rotors about 4 feet in diameter that spin very fast to work in the thin atmosphere.

The main computer behind it all is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor that includes a quad-core CPU, a GPU and a 55 megapixel downward facing image signal processor.

The computer controls a visual navigation algorithm using Mars surface geographical features tracked with the camera.

Surprisingly, the Snapdragon processor aboard Ingenuity is not ruggedized by itself, although JPL has encased the processor to protect against Mar’s low pressure and cold, said Dev Singh, general manager of robotics and drones for Qualcomm in an interview with Fierce Electronics.

In fact, the chip is not much different from other Snapdragon chips used in billions of smartphones, Singh said. Qualcomm first began working with NASA JPL in 2016 on the Ingenuity project.  Qualcomm's flight platform is a multifunctional chip used for drones and robots. 

 Singh confirmed Qualcomm is hoping to work with NASA JPL on future missions, although he would not elaborate.  Future chips might be ruggedized to handle even more severe conditions on other planets.  Working on Ingenuity has also provided insights on ways to improve terrestrial robots and drones for use in industrial settings and may impact development of collective groups of robots that are linked through cellular communications, he said.

Communications from Ingenuity to the rover are made through a Zigbee radio link over 900 MHz SiFlex chipsets mounted in the rover and helicopter.  The links to Earth are made via the rover and Mars orbiters.

The drone helicopter is expected to make five flights during a 30-day test period that begins at least a month after the rover landing on the surface.  There will short vertical tests about 15 feet above the surface and then it will make horizontal flights about 150 feet downrange and back. Flights will be planned by JPL, but will be autonomously controlled during the flights with telemetry data shared afterwards with researchers.

Researchers believe Ingenuity will help plan for future Mars missions.  If the demonstration is deemed a success, flying vehicles might be part of future robotic and human missions to Mars.

The Perseverance rover landing and the planned demonstration of Ingenuity have been compared by NASA to the first Wright Brothers flights.  “It’s a very proud moment for Qualcomm and all humanity,” Singh said. “It’s the first of its kind and will pave the way for future innovation.”

With all its capabilities, Ingenuity isn’t part of Perseverance’s science mission and doesn’t carry any science instruments, NASA said. 

However, a wide array of technologies are being deployed aboard Perseverance, giving plenty of sensor and chipmakers a chance to brag about being a part of a Mars mission.

In just one example, the Finnish Meterological Institute has provided measurement instruments for Perseverance that are equipped with sensors from Vaisala to provide accurate and reliable pressure and humidity measurements in the extreme Martian conditions.

FMI’s instruments are part of a Spanish-led consortium called Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA), a Martian weather station.  Vaisala’s pressure and humidity sensors, known as Humicap and Barocap, are more advanced that ones it sent to Mars aboard the Curiosity rover in 2012.

Just like the helicopter, the rover must operate in the harshness of very low pressure and cold and also be able to operate in possible global dust storms.

Perseverance and Curiosity, more than 1,200 miles apart, will operate in a network to compare atmospheric conditions occurring at the same moment, similar to how weather stations operate on Earth.

NASA TV has scheduled Perseverance landing coverage to begin at 2 p.m. ET on Thursday.

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