The tiny 4-pound (1.8 kg) helicopter that hitched a ride to Mars with NASA’s Perseverance rover just got a mission upgrade. Initially planned as a “technology demonstration” to prove whether or not powered flight was possible in the thin martian atmosphere, Ingenuity surpassed all expectations on the—at the time of writing—four flights it has successfully conducted thus far in its short tenure on Mars. Thanks to that success, Ingenuity will now be put through some additional paces, getting an upgrade from a technology demonstration to an operational demonstration.
Having drones on Mars gives the chance to reach places inaccessible by rovers, like flying over dunes where rovers could get stuck in sand or peering over rough terrain. High resolution aerial images could also be used to assist in route planning for rovers. Currently, rover “traverses” are plotted predominantly using satellite imagery from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which takes images at a stunning 25 cm/pixel resolution. To put that in perspective, that’s higher resolution than most (unclassified) Earth-orbiting satellites, and higher resolution than a lot of what you might see in Google Maps.
But it’s not always high enough resolution to see all of the obstacles and dangers that the terrain could pose for a rover. Aerial imaging from a drone like Ingenuity gives the chance to fly ahead of the rover and see what the most efficient and/or safest path could be with higher confidence. On future missions, a drone could possibly send its imagery directly to the rover, where the rover could then use a combination of artificial intelligence and autonomous navigation to plot its own traverses. And less time spent on operations means more time for science!
This upgrade is really exciting news for the tiny helicopter that could. It’s also a beautiful example of how science and engineering work: Through incremental tests and experiments, pushing the boundaries further and further each time. In the case of Ingenuity, this is not only in the literal sense of increasingly distant and difficult flights, but also metaphorically in terms of taking the next leap in our technological abilities in exploring the Red Planet.
Ingenuity may be the first drone on Mars, but thanks to the amazing JPL engineers behind it, it certainly won’t be the last.