If NASA’s Mars rover can make groundbreaking scientific discoveries (like the fact that Mars had conditions to support life) on wheels alone, think of what we can accomplish by taking to the skies.
NASA is in the planning process of its 2020 Mars rover mission, following the massive success of the Curiosity rover. When the next rover heads to Mars a few years from now, it’s likely that it will be accompanied by a drone to help expand our understanding of the planet’s landscape.
NASA and Drones
Drones have been exceptionally useful for investigating areas of our planet that are difficult for humans to reach, such as high power storms that are dangerous for people to approach or narrow spaces where our bodies just won’t fit.
NASA is already working with drones on its five-year mission, Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel (HS3), to investigate the processes that command hurricane formation and intensity change in the Atlantic Ocean basin. NASA plans to use the data collected by these high-altitude, long-distance drones to understand and predict future tropical storms. The high endurance of these drones helps researchers document the full life cycle of deadly storms to significantly reduce the costs associated with storm damage and evacuation.
Flying Drones on Mars
Theoretically, keeping drones in the sky on Mars should be easier than on Earth, since the red planet has 38% of our planet’s gravity.
On the other hand, liftoff will be particularly challenging. Mars’ atmosphere is quite thin compared to ours, equivalent to just 1% of Earth’s at sea level. Since the air on Mars is 100 times thinner, that means when the UAV’s rotor blades spin they will need to work much harder to lift the drone off the ground. The propellor blades would need to be substantial in size or be able to spin exceptionally fast to displace enough air for liftoff.
Drones Versus Rovers
So why not just add more rovers? The answer: driving on Mars is not an easy feat.
Robots exploring storms, volcanoes, or rescue sites on Earth can be driven by remote control with a joystick since radio signals can reach a robot from its control center almost immediately. Radio signals are able to reach the robot on the moon in roughly the same amount of time. Radio signals traveling at the speed of light take two and a half seconds to make the trip to the moon and back, which isn’t long enough to severely interfere with remote control driving.
Mars is another subject entirely. Depending on its position with Earth, signals can take anywhere from 8 to 42 minutes to make a round trip. As such, pre-programmed instructions must be sent to the rover so that it can navigate on its own, causing each drive to require hours of detailed planning.
The longest rover drive Curiosity has made on Mars was 144 meters in a day. If engineers on the ground could better see the path ahead of a rover, they could create instructions allowing rovers to drive further, faster, and safer. A drone could fly out ahead of the rover, capturing images from its aerial vantage point to identify points of scientific interest and providing the potential driving routes to get the rover there.
Drone Survival Requirements
Ultimately, the drone must be able to fly on its own with prior instructions and maintain stable flight along its specified route, as well as land and take off despite the thin atmosphere, harsh weather, and rocky terrain.
A small, rugged, solar-powered drone would be able to triple the distance that a drone could travel in a day, as well as to boldly go where no rover has gone before.
KDE Direct provides industrial grade drone components for all terrains and missions.