The ESA has tested a novel system that may allow the agency to safely land rovers on Mars using a quadcopter-like dropship. A fully automated, proof of concept Skycrane prototype was created over the course of eight months under the ESA's StarTiger program, with the system's hardware largely derived from commercially available quadcopter components.

The primary challenge for the Dropter project development team revolved around creating a system that could successfully detect and navigate hazardous terrain without the aide of real-time human input. This is a vital feature for any potential rover delivery system, as it is impossible to create a directly controllable sky crane due to the distance between the operator and the vehicle that creates a time lag between command and execution.

Therefore the new rover delivery method had to be designed around an autonomous navigation system. Initially the dropship navigates to the pre determined deployment zone using GPS and inertia control. Once in the vicinity of the target zone, the lander switches to vision-based navigation, utilizing laser ranging and barometers to allow it to detect a safe, flat area upon which to set down its precious cargo.

Once such a site is identified, the lander drops to a height of 10 m (33 ft) above the surface and lowers the rover with the use of a bridle, gradually descending until the rover gently touches down on the planet's surface.

The culmination of eight months of development took place at Airbus’s Trauen site, located in northern Germany, where the concept dropship was put through its paces in a 40 m (131 ft) by 40 m (131 ft) recreation of the Martian surface. During the test, the lander managed to successfully use its navigation systems to safely transport a mock rover to the chosen target zone, whereupon the delivery vehicle assessed and selected a flat, safe landing site, and deployed the rover using the 5 m (16 ft) bridle.

Now, with the concept a proven success, the agency and its partners can focus on further developing the dropship for heavier, more realistic payloads.

The video below displays footage of the prototype dropship during the test at Airbus’s Trauen facility.

Source: ESA