A new era of space drones: how Ingenuity changed the way we explore Mars

The Ingenuity helicopter has already made several times more flights to Mars than planned, but it is still working. We will tell you what is the secret of such efficient operation of the drone and what will happen to it.

How Ingenuity’s mission changed over the course of its operation on Mars

JPL published an article on the website of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the United States with the telling title “Goals achieved, NASA intends to expand the boundaries of what is possible with Ingenuity.”

In fact, in it, Dave Lavery and Mimi Aung, the leaders of the Mars helicopter mission, declared its complete success.

Initially, there were five test flights of the Mars aircraft. At the same time, scientists said that one could not count on the first successful flight, since there are a lot of risk factors. But after everything worked out, and three flights in a row were successful at once, the project team decided to extend the life of Ingenuity.

Despite the fact that with the fourth toast there were some minor difficulties, the leaders of the mission decided that it was going well. Now the project management plans to develop a plan for aerial photography of the area, as far as, of course, this term corresponds to the realities of Mars and the capabilities of the drone.

What Ingenuity can do

The hardware delivers the high performance that a rover needs. Normal flight requires the control loop to operate at 500 cycles per second, plus image analysis at 30 frames per second.

SoC Snapdragon 801 (four cores, 2.26 GHz, 2 GB RAM, 32 GB Flash) is responsible for the basic system environment based on Linux. It is it that performs high-level operations, including:

  • Visual navigation based on the analysis of camera images,
  • Data management,
  • Command processing,
  • Formation of telemetry,
  • Maintaining a wireless channel.

The UART interface connects the processor to two microcontrollers. They are responsible for various flight control functions. In addition, they are also used for backup in case of failure, so that the information that comes to them is duplicated.

How will the flights go according to the new plan

It is planned that the flights will be carried out 1-2 times a month, and without significant diversion of resources from the main program – that is, from the research program of the rover itself.

The mission of the rover is now the study of potentially interesting objects for science, the study of possible routes for the rover, and the compilation of detailed photographs of the landscape.

How to choose the places where Ingenuity will fly

The choice of areas over which Ingenuity flies is not random, but depends least of all on the scientific value of the information received by the copter.

Recall that the Ingenuity helicopter is not alone on Mars, it operates in conjunction with the Perseverance rover, and it depends on their connection where the drone will fly. Therefore, everything that is transmitted from the Earth is processed by the rover: it builds diagrams of engine operation (or selects one of a couple of dozen ready-made templates) and sends a packet of instructions to the helicopter. Ingenuity gets all commands from Perseverance.

The selection process began with the analysis of images of the landing area of ​​the rover taken from orbit by the MRO station. Thus, it is possible, in a first approximation, to determine potential take-off and landing sites, to which Perseverance can approach and conduct a more detailed survey of the terrain.

Depending on the rockiness, slope and even how smooth or uneven the surface is, we will choose a place for the helicopter to operate. There are tradeoffs here: the safest terrain is a board-smooth surface without stones, but this is the worst option in terms of being able to track changes in the location of objects on it. Therefore, we need a balance, for example a bunch of small stones, which can be well monitored. But their size shouldn’t make it difficult to fit.

Tim Canham, Mars Helicopter Operations Manager at JPL

What will happen to Ingenuity next

Six months after deployment, the helicopter is in excellent condition, having covered a total of 2670 m in 12 flights with a total duration of 22 minutes.

This is noticeably more than Perseverance drove. Note: for the Ingenuity team, even one successful flight meant the success of the entire mission. The maximum they were counting on was three or four flights. But the copter has mastered a dozen flights, and it seems that this is far from the limit.

Representatives of the Mars Helicopter Scout program announced plans to increase the flight duration to three minutes, and the range to one kilometer.

Subsequently, Ingenuity’s travels were to become more complicated and lengthened. The update, loaded into the “brain” of the copter, made it possible to exclude the anomalies that manifested themselves in the sixth flight.

Ingenuity problems

The main disadvantage is that Ingenuity can refuse at any time. Despite the excellent telemetry data, the helicopter has a high chance of breaking in every second spent on Mars.

It is impossible to predict when and which part of it will finally fail to withstand extreme temperature changes. Perseverance will start to move faster and the drone will not keep up with it even with a good connection.

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Alexandr Ivanov earned his Licentiate Engineer in Systems and Computer Engineering from the Free International University of Moldova. Since 2013, Alexandr has been working as a freelance web programmer.
Function: Web Developer and Editor
Alexandr Ivanov

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