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posted by martyb on Sunday February 21 2021, @06:24AM   Printer-friendly [Skip to comment(s)]

How NASA Designed a Helicopter That Could Fly Autonomously on Mars:

Tucked under the belly of the Perseverance rover that will be landing on Mars in just a few days is a little helicopter called Ingenuity. Its body is the size of a box of tissues, slung underneath a pair of 1.2m carbon fiber rotors on top of four spindly legs. It weighs just 1.8kg, but the importance of its mission is massive. If everything goes according to plan, Ingenuity will become the first aircraft to fly on Mars.

In order for this to work, Ingenuity has to survive frigid temperatures, manage merciless power constraints, and attempt a series of 90 second flights while separated from Earth by 10 light minutes. Which means that real-time communication or control is impossible. To understand how NASA is making this happen, below is our conversation with Tim Canham, Mars Helicopter Operations Lead at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

It's important to keep the Mars Helicopter mission in context, because this is a technology demonstration. The primary goal here is to fly on Mars, full stop. Ingenuity won't be doing any of the same sort of science that the Perseverance rover is designed to do. If we're lucky, the helicopter will take a couple of in-flight pictures, but that's about it. The importance and the value of the mission is to show that flight on Mars is possible, and to collect data that will enable the next generation of Martian rotorcraft, which will be able to do more ambitious and exciting things.

[...] With all this in mind, getting Ingenuity to Mars in one piece and having it take off and land even once is a definite victory for NASA, JPL's Tim Canham tells us. Canham helped develop the software architecture that runs Ingenuity. As the Ingenuity operations lead, he's now focused on flight planning and coordinating with the Perseverance rover team. We spoke with Canham to get a better understanding of how Ingenuity will be relying on autonomy for its upcoming flights on Mars.

[...] With a technology demo, JPL is willing to try new ways of doing things. So we essentially went out and used a lot of off-the-shelf consumer hardware.

There are some avionics components that are very tough and radiation resistant, but much of the technology is commercial grade. The processor board that we used, for instance, is a Snapdragon 801, which is manufactured by Qualcomm. It's essentially a cell phone class processor, and the board is very small. But ironically, because it's relatively modern technology, it's vastly more powerful than the processors that are flying on the rover. We actually have a couple of orders of magnitude more computing power than the rover does, because we need it. Our guidance loops are running at 500 Hz in order to maintain control in the atmosphere that we're flying in. And on top of that, we're capturing images and analyzing features and tracking them from frame to frame at 30 Hz, and so there's some pretty serious computing power needed for that. And none of the avionics that NASA is currently flying are anywhere near powerful enough. In some cases we literally ordered parts from SparkFun [Electronics]. Our philosophy was, "this is commercial hardware, but we'll test it, and if it works well, we'll use it."

[...] We use a cellphone-grade IMU[*], a laser altimeter (from SparkFun), and a downward-pointing VGA camera for monocular feature tracking. A few dozen features are compared frame to frame to track relative position to figure out direction and speed, which is how the helicopter navigates. It's all done by estimates of position, as opposed to memorizing features or creating a map.

We also have an inclinometer that we use to establish the tilt of the ground just during takeoff, and we have a cellphone-grade 13 megapixel color camera that isn't used for navigation, but we're going to try to take some nice pictures while we're flying.

[...] This the first time we'll be flying Linux on Mars. We're actually running on a Linux operating system. The software framework that we're using is one that we developed at JPL for cubesats and instruments, and we open-sourced it a few years ago. So, you can get the software framework that's flying on the Mars helicopter, and use it on your own project. It's kind of an open-source victory, because we're flying an open-source operating system and an open-source flight software framework and flying commercial parts that you can buy off the shelf if you wanted to do this yourself someday. This is a new thing for JPL because they tend to like what's very safe and proven, but a lot of people are very excited about it, and we're really looking forward to doing it.

See, also, the NASA Mars Helicopter Ingenuity Animations on YouTube.

[*] IMU: Inertial measurement unit.


Original Submission

Related Stories

First Flight on Mars? Ingenuity Helicopter Preps for Takeoff 92 comments

Salon has an article on Ingenuity.

In 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright flew a plane for 12 seconds, 120 feet in the air, on what is now known as the first powered-controlled flight on Earth. Now, 118 years later, the first powered-controlled attempt at a flight on another planet is about to take place.

According to NASA, Ingenuity — the four-pound rotorcraft attached to Perseverance — is on its way to its "airfield" on Mars.

The space agency announced that its target for its first takeoff attempt will happen no earlier than April 8, 2021.

Ingenuity was designed as an experiment to see if it is possible to fly on Mars as we do here on Earth. And the process leading up to the takeoff is a very meticulous one. Consider how long it took humans to stick a powered-controlled flight on Earth; given Mars' thin atmosphere and a twenty-minute delay in communication, it is arguably more challenging on Mars.

"As with everything with the helicopter, this type of deployment has never been done before," Farah Alibay, Mars helicopter integration lead for the Perseverance rover, said in a press statement. "Once we start the deployment there is no turning back."

Every move for the next couple of weeks could make or break Ingenuity's success — starting with precisely positioning the rotorcraft in the middle of its 33-by-33-foot square airfield, which is actually a flat field on the Martian surface with no obstructions. From there, the entire deployment process from Perseverance will take about six Martian days, which are called sols. (The Martian sol is thirty-nine minutes longer than an Earth day.)

Good luck, little chopper!

Previously:
NASA Lays Out Plans for its First Flights on Mars
How NASA Designed a Helicopter that Could Fly Autonomously on Mars
NASA is Sending a Helicopter to Mars, but What For?


Original Submission

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  • (Score: 2) by mendax on Sunday February 21 2021, @06:42AM

    by mendax (2840) on Sunday February 21 2021, @06:42AM (#1115506)

    This the first time we'll be flying Linux on Mars. We're actually running on a Linux operating system.

    The Mars chopper is running Linux. Woohoo! It's about time Linux made its way there.

    --
    It's really quite a simple choice: Life, Death, or Los Angeles.
  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by bzipitidoo on Sunday February 21 2021, @07:31AM (14 children)

    by bzipitidoo (4388) Subscriber Badge on Sunday February 21 2021, @07:31AM (#1115508) Journal

    How are they managing with such a thin atmosphere? The summary didn't mention that prob, and I'd think that's worse than the cold.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 21 2021, @07:36AM

      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 21 2021, @07:36AM (#1115509)

      that will be landing on Mars in just a few days

      Ago? MolassoylentNews?

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 21 2021, @08:54AM

      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 21 2021, @08:54AM (#1115513)

      I think it's the 1.2 m blades that are meant to handle the thin atmosphere.
      box of tissues helicopter on Earth? you can get it in any toy store, and the blades are half that or less.

    • (Score: 3, Informative) by FatPhil on Sunday February 21 2021, @09:20AM (7 children)

      by FatPhil (863) <{pc-soylent} {at} {asdf.fi}> on Sunday February 21 2021, @09:20AM (#1115517) Homepage
      Veritasium went into that more deeply than I've seen anyone else do it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhsZUZmJvaM
      He has access to the top boffins there, great little vid.
      --
      Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people; the smallest discuss themselves
      • (Score: 2) by Runaway1956 on Sunday February 21 2021, @10:17AM (5 children)

        by Runaway1956 (2926) Subscriber Badge on Sunday February 21 2021, @10:17AM (#1115522) Homepage Journal

        Great video. These are the people I want to see and hear. The broadcast when Perseverance was landing featured a couple photogenic young women with pretty smiles, who I tired of pretty quickly. This video proves you don't need eye candy to be informative!

        --
        Our first six presidents were educated men. Then, along came a Democrat.
        • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 21 2021, @06:44PM (2 children)

          by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 21 2021, @06:44PM (#1115652)

          [...] The broadcast when Perseverance was landing featured a couple photogenic young women with pretty smiles, who I tired of pretty quickly. This video proves you don't need eye candy to be informative!

          More likely than not, those 'photogenic young women' are LEA decoys, strategically placed in the broadcast to draw presumptive 'social offender' suspects out-of-the-woodwork. I live in a cop town, where if you're not a cop, then you're considered a suspect, and LEA decoys are the bait, eye-poison that should be ignored and avoided.

          • (Score: 2) by hendrikboom on Sunday February 21 2021, @09:57PM (1 child)

            by hendrikboom (1125) Subscriber Badge on Sunday February 21 2021, @09:57PM (#1115737) Homepage Journal

            LEA?

            • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 21 2021, @11:47PM

              by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 21 2021, @11:47PM (#1115779)

              law enforcement agent

        • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 21 2021, @07:07PM (1 child)

          by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 21 2021, @07:07PM (#1115664)

          Isn't great that we can have these great US achievements back on track? Thanks Buden, glad wr have an adult POTUS who can focus on Making America Great instead of pining for memories.

          • (Score: 2, Touché) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 21 2021, @07:57PM

            by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 21 2021, @07:57PM (#1115685)

            Binge watching "America's dumbest criminals". Not a MAGA hat to be seen . . .

      • (Score: 2) by Rupert Pupnick on Sunday February 21 2021, @05:01PM

        by Rupert Pupnick (7277) on Sunday February 21 2021, @05:01PM (#1115596) Journal

        Ah, therein lie the answers to the question I posted further down. Thanks.

    • (Score: 2) by Rupert Pupnick on Sunday February 21 2021, @04:19PM (1 child)

      by Rupert Pupnick (7277) on Sunday February 21 2021, @04:19PM (#1115577) Journal

      What I'd like to know is whether they tested it in low atmospheric density conditions, and if so, how? If they didn't test it, they must have a ton of confidence in their models which I'd imagine have to be very complex.

      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 21 2021, @05:12PM

        by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 21 2021, @05:12PM (#1115604)

        I'm sure they couldn't create a partial vacuum. But great question - you almost tried researching for yourself for 1 or 2 seconds.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 21 2021, @05:11PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 21 2021, @05:11PM (#1115603)

      Great quetion! Nobody thought of that.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 21 2021, @11:40PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 21 2021, @11:40PM (#1115776)
  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 21 2021, @08:03AM (6 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 21 2021, @08:03AM (#1115510)

    As noted in the TFA, the atmosphere is 1% of that of Earth (at seal level). I'm impressed we can make a helicopter that will fly at all in that. The 38% surface gravity helps, but still that's 38x the volumetric flow rate it has to do to get positive lift compared to on Earth.

    • (Score: 3, Interesting) by Rosco P. Coltrane on Sunday February 21 2021, @08:14AM (5 children)

      by Rosco P. Coltrane (4757) on Sunday February 21 2021, @08:14AM (#1115512)

      I wonder why they went for a helicopter, given how little atmosphere there is to bite into and the power constraints. A fixed-winged aircraft would require a lot less power to stay aloft and a lot less computational power to control.

      But then they made for a technology demonstrator, so perhaps they threw a lot of simplicity and robustness design choices out the window just because they explicitely wanted to test more complex, less reliable, harder-to-do stuff. Still, for a first flight, I would have expected them to go for a more conservative design.

      • (Score: 2, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 21 2021, @09:14AM (1 child)

        by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 21 2021, @09:14AM (#1115515)

        A fixed wing aircraft might be easier to fly but it only works once, because it probably can't land and take off again. The terrain is just too difficult. The helicopter can land, wait until its batteries are recharged, and then take off again. If it gets confused, it can just land wherever it happens to be and wait for engineers on Earth to sort it out.

        Also, they're using commercial components. Most micro drones on Earth are helicopters, so it's easier for them to use helicopter software.

        They're only planning to fly it five times, but I don't see why it couldn't potentially fly more than that. Or less. It might crash on the first flight, after all, or even fail to deploy from the rover.

        The aerodynamics are harder, but we have a lot more practice with aerodynamics than we do with controlling an autonomous drone on Mars. The helicopter design is safer overall.

        • (Score: 2) by canopic jug on Sunday February 21 2021, @10:31AM

          by canopic jug (3949) Subscriber Badge on Sunday February 21 2021, @10:31AM (#1115523) Journal

          I'd be more worried about the accumulation dust and grit in the moving parts while it is on the ground or, for that matter, landing or taking off. I hope they do get a lot of flights out of it.

          Obviously they've been planning for a long time. I wonder how much crossover there has been with simulators like X-Plane, which can simualte the conditions on Mars. X-Plane also also has one helicopter [x-plane.com], specifically a Sikorsky S-76, in stock.

          --
          Money is not free speech. Elections should not be auctions.
      • (Score: 3, Insightful) by SomeGuy on Sunday February 21 2021, @02:36PM (2 children)

        by SomeGuy (5632) on Sunday February 21 2021, @02:36PM (#1115548)

        They just really wanted their own ROFLCOPTER on the surface of mars.

        • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 21 2021, @05:15PM (1 child)

          by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 21 2021, @05:15PM (#1115608)

          I'm looking forward to the picture of this thing upside down rotating it's body around pathetically like a cockroach on its back. Welcome to motherfucking Mars.

          • (Score: 2) by FatPhil on Monday February 22 2021, @12:08AM

            by FatPhil (863) <{pc-soylent} {at} {asdf.fi}> on Monday February 22 2021, @12:08AM (#1115794) Homepage
            That's what happens when humans try to fly it. Fortunately, it's driven by a quad-core ARM.
            --
            Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people; the smallest discuss themselves
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