In an interview published yesterday (17) in Spectrum, a magazine of the US Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the head of helicopter operations at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Tim Canham, explained how he plans to operate a small helicopter on Mars, 230 million kilometers away.
“Hidden” inside the Perseverance rover, the sophisticated NASA probe that is due to land on Mars today (18th) in the afternoon, the Ingenuity helicopter is actually a structure the size of a box of tissues hanging from a pair of rotors. carbon fiber of 1.2 m wingspan, balancing on four thin legs.
The weight of the gadget is less than two pounds, but the magnitude of its mission is historic. If the interplanetary venture works as planned, Ingenuity will become the first aircraft to fly outside our planet and, most impressively, executing commands almost autonomously, commands sent from Earth.
What will Ingenuity do on Mars?
“One of the first things Ingenuity should do when it reaches Mars,” explains Canham, “is just to survive your first night.” For that, even a programmable thermostat was placed on board to keep you warm from the cold (which can reach -90º C in the Jezero crater). Upon arrival, the drone will charge itself with a solar panel on top of its rotors, says the engineer.
Canham clarifies that, behind this semi-autonomy of Ingenuity, there is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor, which includes a quad-core CPU, a GPU and a 55-megapixel down-facing VGA camera. The computer controls the visual navigation algorithm, working with the geographic features of the red planet tracked by the camera.
The navigation system completes an IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit) of the type used in cell phones and a laser altimeter from SparkFun. For more details, Canham says, you can get the Ingenuity software framework directly from NASA.