NASA has announced that its Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will be sending a helicopter to the Red Planet on the upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission. It will land on Mars whilst attached to the bottom of the rover in February 2021. During the first 30 days of the mission it will undertake several autonomous flights, each lasting up to 90 seconds.
The Mars helicopter technology will lay the way for many future scientific and exploratory missions to Mars. Similar robots could serve as flying eyes for future rovers, exploring the surroundings and finding the best route for the rover.
For the small helicopter to fly, it takes an enormous engineering effort. The thin air on Mars is comparable to the conditions prevailing on Earth at an altitude of 30 kilometers. Even accounting for the reduced Martian gravity, the helicopter must therefore be particularly light (1.8 kilograms) and can only carry small batteries. This requires that the components used are extremely energy-efficient, a requirement served by maxon’s DC motors. The drives from Switzerland have proven themselves in many previous Mars missions and will also be used in JPL’s helicopter. Six DCX precision micro motors with a diameter of 10 millimeters are responsible for moving the swashplate and hence adjusting the inclination of the rotor blades - i.e. for controlling the vehicle.
The helicopter propulsion system is designed and built by AeroVironment under contract from JPL. maxon engineers have been working closely with the specialists at AeroVironment and after a year of development work, NASA’s approval for the inclusion of the helicopter project in the Mars2020 mission is an additional motivation for the Swiss drive specialists. "Being part of another Mars pioneering project makes us incredibly proud and happy," said Eugen Elmiger, CEO of maxon motor.