For their 2020 Mars rover mission, NASA is adding a little autonomous helicopter drone to their arsenal of instruments. Compared to a rover, more ground can be covered faster with the use of an unmanned aerial device. However, since the atmosphere is so much thinner on Mars – ground level on the red planet compares to an altitude of 100,000 feet on earth – the light-weight helicopter drone has extraordinary large blades and will only be used for a limited number of short test flights. If proven successful it may open the door to the use of more drone helicopters on future Mars missions.

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NASA’s autonomous helicopter drone

NASA will be sending an autonomous helicopter drone as part of the 2020 Mars rover mission to the red planet to follow up on the success of the Curiosity rover. An unmanned aerial device allows you to cover more of the terrain faster, but since the atmosphere on Mars is so thin flying there presents its own set of challenges. To overcome this problem the helicopter drone will be very lightweight and will feature a special counter-rotating, enlarged blade design that will spin at 3,000 rpm, which is about ten times faster than a normal helicopter.

The helicopter drone is currently being tested by NASA. The blades measure 3.6 feet from tip to tip. The unmanned aerial vehicle will be solar powered and is designed to only flight up to three minutes at a time while covering about a third of a mile. The heart of the autonomous drone is a little cube, roughly the size of a tissue box that weighs 2.2 pounds. The device will also be outfitted with a wide-angle, GoPro-like camera.

Since it will be impossible for humans to remotely control the drone, it will have to fly autonomously. Once the rover lands it will place the drone on the ground. First, it will need to charge its batteries using the solar panels and run a series of tests before it can initiate its first test flight. The first flight will be a very short one. It will hover for about 30 seconds at an altitude of 10 feet. If this initial flight is successful, NASA is planning another four additional flights over the following 30 days in which the unmanned aerial vehicle may fly for three minutes and as far as a third of a mile.

If the helicopter drone proves to be successful on Mars, it may open the door to future drone flights. The 2020 Mars rover mission is scheduled to launch in July 2020 and is should arrive on the red dwarf planet seven months later.

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