Friday, June 12, 2015

2015-06-11: Autonomy Incubator Tests Mars Electric Flyer Prototype

Jim Neilan crouches as he approaches the Mars Flyer so as not to startle it

It's a copter! It's a fixed-wing! No, it's... what is that?

Definitely the most unusual vehicle to grace the Autonomy Incubator recently, the Mars Electric Flyer represents an entirely new genre of UAVs: flyers designed for use on other planets. The Mars Flyer, as its name would suggest, has been painstakingly crafted to fly in the thinner air and lower gravity of the Red Planet.

"Thinner air" is actually a pretty mild term for the conditions where the Mars Flyer is going: the atmosphere on Mars is one hundred times thinner than the Earth's. Such a drastic change in the environment calls for an innovative approach to flight. It's built to fly extremely fast and catch as much lift as possible in order to stay aloft in the minimal atmosphere.

"The design philosophy of the Mars Electric Flyer VTOL is to keep it EXTREMELY simple and lightweight. So we use as few moving parts as possible," said Dave North, the SACD project lead for the Mars Flyer.

In contrast to the current prototype, meant for sea-level testing on Earth, the real Mars Flyer will have props nearly three feet in diameter and will reach speeds up to 200 mph, after it switches from vertical takeoff mode to forward flight mode.  During its four or five minute flights, the Flyer will collect data about the surrounding area before docking onto the Mars rover, downloading its data, and charging with solar panels for the next Martian day.  

All this is terribly exciting, but where does the Autonomy Incubator come in? The Incubator is on board to provide the Mars Flyer with autonomous capabilities. Radio signals take twenty minutes to travel from Earth to Mars, which makes tele-controlling it infeasible. That means that when the Mars Flyer is flying at blisteringly high speeds through the Martian atmosphere, it's going to have to be able to position itself and plot its own path in order to complete its missions.

Jim Neilan and Paul Rothhaar are the PIs in charge of the Incubator's role in the Mars Flyer Project, with student intern Josh Eddy supporting them. The recent tests at the Incubator, Jim said, are intended as "proof-of-concept" for the flight algorithms that the Incubator has been working on. The results of the tests will provide valuable insights into whether the technology we have available now is enough for the Mars Flyer to navigate an unknown environment and report data about that environment back to mission control. 

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