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Dropship quadcopter concept may offer precise, safe landings for Mars rovers

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July 5, 2014

ESA's prototype dropship attached to a mock lander (Photo: Airbus Defence & Space)

ESA's prototype dropship attached to a mock lander (Photo: Airbus Defence & Space)

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

About the Author
Anthony Wood Anthony is a recent law school graduate who also has a degree in Ancient History, for some reason or another. Residing in the UK, Anthony has had a passion about anything space orientated from a young age and finds it baffling that we have yet to colonize the moon. When not writing he can be found watching American football and growing out his magnificent beard.   All articles by Anthony Wood
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11 Comments

it looks cool but so long as it's attached to a helicopter, why use a crane? it's not like it'll be cooked by jets if it's directly below the transporter. Just make a disposable rotor system that's directly shed after it lands, maybe even connected to the lander battery system for simplicity.

SuperFool
6th July, 2014 @ 12:04 am PDT

I really don't see a quadcopter working on mars. a light gas airship on the other hand.

Slowburn
6th July, 2014 @ 03:51 am PDT

mhh,

atmosphere on mars is that tight to use a quadrocopter?

worf2
6th July, 2014 @ 04:38 am PDT

The earth simulation was great and all but I'm intrigued as to how they are going to actually get this to work on mars. Where the surface atmosphere is less than one 10th of earth although the gravity is around one third.

I am thinking you would need very large prop's and work them with the tips travelling at super sonic velocities.

ramriot
6th July, 2014 @ 06:06 am PDT

That's cool but neither article says anything about how it will be affected by the much thinner atmosphere of Mars (1/100 of Earth)

Elie Morisse
6th July, 2014 @ 08:02 am PDT

This gizmo would have to operate in the very thin Martian atmosphere ... something akin to 120,000 feet altitude on earth ... I wonder how large the copter blades would have to be ....

DixonAgee
6th July, 2014 @ 11:53 am PDT

and how exactly will perform a quadcopter in an atmosphere which is only 1% density compared with Earth's atmosphere?

dancat
6th July, 2014 @ 03:55 pm PDT

GPS and quadricopters on Mars?

Yes, sure...

jumpjack
7th July, 2014 @ 12:53 pm PDT

To use a GPS navigating quadcopter on Mars, the first step is to send a fleet of GPS satellites to Mars.

Gregg Eshelman
7th July, 2014 @ 10:48 pm PDT

Since the disposable quadcopter would have to be very large compared to the rover, this doesn't seem like a good idea. The stresses on the quadcopters extra large rotors would be very extreme when decelerating down from orbit even with a parachute or retrorockets doing the initial slow down. A steerable parachute paired with retro rockets would probably be simpler for a throw away lander. Another idea would be for the rover to be attached to a large blimp and touch down several times in different locations. Depending on the Martian winds this might be a short lived mission but waiting for days for the current rovers to move short distances at a snails pace seems to waste a lot of time. Being able to hop from place to place would allow a larger area to be surveyed for later missions.

Bob
8th July, 2014 @ 09:11 am PDT

This is a demonstration of sensing, autonomous navigation and set-down.

The actual vehicle would be a rocket powered tender, as was used to set Curiosity Rover down.

Warren Marts
6th August, 2014 @ 12:01 pm PDT
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