One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind - Neil Armstrong
On April 19 2021, history was made in the drone industry - NASA’s Ingenuity is the first unmanned rotorcraft to fly on another planet. Since the first flight, Ingenuity has continued to make history, performing one-way flights and allowing another spacecraft to record the sound it makes. To the uninitiated, Ingenuity is just a simple, little helicopter. Its flights would appear unremarkable, flying slightly over 100m at best. What makes it so remarkable?
First, we have to understand the environment it flies in. Mars has an environment very different from ours on Earth - strong and frequent sandstorms, large temperature variations, thin atmosphere, and low gravity, characterise the differences of the Martian atmosphere from Earth.
This infographic contains various details about Ingenuity's maiden flight on Mars.
Strong and frequent sandstorms
The Ingenuity has very little surface area so as to minimise getting caught in strong winds.
Large temperature variation
A large bulk of the material used is carbon fibre, which is light and rigid. Together with minimising surface area, by using very light materials, the structure has minimal mass so that its endurance is lengthened. In addition, rigid materials are used to minimise expansion and contraction due to the temperature variation. This would reduce fatigue to the materials, prolonging its lifespan on Mars
The density of the Martian atmosphere is about a hundredth of Earth’s atmosphere. In Ingenuity’s flights of up to 5m above ground, it is akin to flying at more than 27,000m on Earth. In other words, with the same power settings, Ingenuity would fly at nearly 3 times the altitude of commercial passenger aircraft! There is no existing helicopter that can achieve the same altitude. To provide the required amount of thrust, its blades are long - almost 10 times that of its fuselage. Even then, it still spins at 2400RPM!
How small Ingenuity is compared to the Perseverance and a human to scale
Gravity on Mars is about a third that of Earth’s, which partially offsets the challenge of the thin atmosphere (remember: W = mg, with a lower g, the W that the propellers need to lift is lesser, as such the thrust required is lesser). While this is great news for achieving lift-off, the designers must ensure that strong winds do not blow the drone away. This is why the landing sites are chosen to be inside craters, where the drone will be shielded from strong winds.
Of course, designing Ingenuity was not just about the above factors - engineers also had to take into account solar radiation, power supply, communication and control, and shock resistance for its travel from Earth to Mars.
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Image credits: AFP, NASA, AeroTime, BBC