NASA Will Use Drones To Explore Mars

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NASA will use the Mars Helicopter to scout ahead of its next generation rover

Drones were all the rage at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, but the latest application is literally out of this world (and won’t be held back by the FAA). NASA recently proposed the idea of developing a Mars Helicopter, an add-on for the next generation of Mars rovers that would allow scientists to quickly scout ahead and decide on optimal paths forward.

NASA’s Mars Helicopter kills two birds with one drone

The Mars Helicopter would solve two major problems that NASA faces in the Mars rover program. The first is that the information they have to work with only comes at the extremes: distant images taken by satellites or up close pictures from the rovers themselves. Both are important of course, but an intermediate scale would be useful. Related to that, travel is difficult for the Mars rovers because of the rough terrain and because any damage is permanent – the only way for scientists to get full value out of the rovers is to pilot them with a good deal of caution.

The prototype Mars Helicopter, weighing in at about 1 kilogram and 1.1 meters across, would be able to look for obstacles in the rover’s planned path and provide NASA with aerial photos of a much larger area than the rovers can provide.

Scouting is just the beginning

It’s easy to imagine (though probably not so easy to design) even more applications for the Mars Helicopter than just taking pictures. Once you go through the trouble of outfitting the next rover with a drone, including some sort of landing pad where it can recharge, it seems like collecting samples is a logical next step. Even if the drone is restricted to very small samples, and to ideal landing spots to make sure it doesn’t get damaged, any additional information on where to direct the rover is invaluable.

Drones could also allow the rovers to extend their exploration of Mars upward by sampling the air at different elevations, giving atmospheric scientists a lot more data to work with. The first iteration of the Mars Helicopter might not be up for such a task – piloting a drone through a dust storm with significant lag doesn’t sound like it would end well – but as commercial drone technology continues to improve NASA will be able to put it to good use.

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