Can Helicopter Drones Revolutionize Off-World Exploration
Kyle Maxey posted on January 27, 2015 |
Could small, quad-copter like drones revolutionize the way we explore and do science on other planet...

Mars, rover, drone, quadcopter, AI, swarmFor decades NASA and the ESA have been exploring remote worlds using wheeled rovers that move about like any other auto. While rovers like Curiosity have delivered stunning imagery, profound scientific data and an indelible marker of human exploration, they’ve had their downfalls.

Chief among rover problems are their method of locomotion. Just like a car, rovers move primarily with their wheel on the ground, and given their enormous expense, they do that quite slowly.  With that lack of pace rovers can only explore a small area each day and more importantly they can’t rapidly respond to developing phenomenon that might be of scientific interest.

But what if rovers had a fast moving companion that could scout beyond their daily range, and even make cursory observations of its own?

Well, researchers at NASA’s JPL are working on just that thing.

In a recent announcement from JPL, the world’s foremost space agency is developing a proof of concept system that would see 1kg (2.2lbs) helicopter-style drones accompany rovers to expand their mission envelopes.

“The helicopter would fly ahead of the rover almost every day, checking out various possible points of interest and helping engineers back on Earth plan the best driving route.” Writes JPL. “Scientists could also use the helicopter images to look for features for the rover to study in further detail. Another part of the helicopter's job would be to check out the best places for the rover to collect key samples and rocks for a cache, which a next-generation rover could pick up later.”

While NASA’s current plans only foresee drones being used as guides it would be excellent if the same machines could be used to expand the reach of our scientific endeavors. By giving exploration missions a rapid response capability and the freedom to move through the air, more science could be done and new heights could be reached by these autonomous (possibly swarm-controlled) drones.

Image and Video Courtesy of NASA - JPL

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