Ingenuity Mars copter offers us the ultimate tech demo

Technology demonstrations happen all the time, but rarely in public view as with the test flights of the Mars copter known as Ingenuity.

NASA JPL engineers and their communications team have been sharing details almost every day about things they have learned, mistakes and insights from this tech demo.

This kind of public sharing is extraordinary. It rarely happens in the private sector and even at publicly funded research bodies, partly because scientists and engineers don’t have the time or don’t want to share trade secrets with the competition. Some engineers might not want to admit mistakes or setbacks, but often they do when pressed, partly because they know a test failure is not really a failure, just another chance to learn how to do it right.

At the Wright Brothers museum in Kitty Hawk, N.C., there is a glass display pushed into a corner of the hundreds of wing designs that were tested repeatedly in a crude wind tunnel before the magic wing shape materialized.  That kind of work, over years, takes patience and observation and an almost crazy belief in the end result.

What is happening with Ingenuity and its test flights could make a great engineering course. It shows how some of the smartest engineers have overcome setbacks and gradually applied increased capabilities in successive flights.

Take one example from the third successful flight of Ingenuity on April 25. The little 4-pound Ingenuity has a color camera as well as a black-and-white navigation camera which tracks surface features below as it flies along.  The surface features are compared with those on preloaded images (a kind of map) using a fast processor to tell the rotorcraft to adjust height and angle if needed, all based on a preloaded flight plan.

The third flight put the onboard processing of the images to a test, as NASA noted in a status report. Ingenuity’s flight computer, which autonomously flies the copter based on instructions sent up hours before data is received back on Earth, uses the same resources as the cameras. “Over greater distances [as with the 164-foot third flight] more images are taken,” NASA explained. “If Ingenuity flies too fast, the flight algorithm can’t track surface features.”

Ingenuity Project Manager MiMi Aung said the third flight was the first time the team saw the algorithm for the camera running over a long distance. “You can’t do this inside a test chamber,” she noted.  Vacuum chambers at JPL were filled with carbon dioxide mainly to simulate the Martian atmosphere, but there was not room for the copter to move more than 1.6 feet.  A big challenge for the third flight was whether the camera would track the ground as needed while moving at a higher speed.

In addition to the tracking algorithm, the team had to worry about good images and dust was a factor. The team had made its plan and ultimately the test succeeded. “We have done all we can to prepare Ingenuity to fly free,” JPL software engineer Gerik Kubiak said.

Fortunately, NASA JPL engineers can afford with public funding to test and retest, something that small research groups and startups cannot afford.  NASA has invested $85 million to build Ingenuity over six years and to operate it on Mars, along with a projected cost of $2.7 billion for the Perseverance rover that carried Ingenuity to the Red Planet.

I hear all time from people reading my stories about space exploration that it isn’t clear what the benefits of space exploration are here on Earth, even though we know hundreds of technologies and scientific insights have accrued from NASA research through the decades.  One tangible benefit with Ingenuity is likely to include insights about using sensors to track movement of autonomous vehicles and robots on Earth, something that car and robotics companies are embracing with zeal.  There are multiple sensors on evolving autonomous vehicles and robots, including cameras, radar and lidar, and the software (often artificial intelligence) and superfast processing chips needed to guide vehicles on roadways in traffic and to instruct robots and drones how to move through factories or across terrain.

An intangible benefit of Ingenuity not to be overlooked is what it teaches scientists, engineers and students about designing tech demos and something as basic as try, try again.  There is a detailed process in creating and carrying out tech demos. They require a slavish respect for the rigor and the imagination that propels the scientific method.

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