March 3, 2021

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A Look at The “Risky” Tech in NASA’s Martian Helicopter

A Look at The “Risky” Tech in NASA’s Martian Helicopter

On February 18th, the Perseverance rover safely touched down on the Martian surface. In the coming days and weeks, the wide array of instruments and scientific payloads tucked aboard the robotic explorer will spring to life; allowing us to learn more about the Red Planet. With a little luck, it may even bring us closer to determining if Mars once harbored life as we know it.

Among all of the pieces of equipment aboard the rover, one of the most intriguing must certainly be Ingenuity. This small helicopter will become the first true aircraft to take off and fly on another planet, and in a recent interview with IEEE Spectrum, operations lead [Tim Canham] shared some fascinating details about the vehicle and some of the unorthodox decisions that went into its design.

A Look at The “Risky” Tech in NASA’s Martian Helicopter
Ingenuity’s downward facing sensors.

[Tim] explains that, as a technology demonstrator, the team was allowed to take far more risks in developing Ingenuity than they would have been able to otherwise. Rather than sticking with legacy hardware and software, they were free to explore newer and less proven technology.

That included off-the-shelf consumer components, such as a laser altimeter purchased from SparkFun. It also means that the computational power packed into Ingenuity far exceeds that of Perseverance itself, though how well the helicopter’s smartphone-class Snapdragon 801 processor will handle the harsh Martian environment is yet to be seen.

On the software side, we also learn that Ingenuity is making extensive use of open source code. Not only is the onboard computer running Linux, but the vehicle is being controlled by an Apache 2.0 licensed framework developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for CubeSats and other small spacecraft. The project is available on GitHub for anyone who wants it, and according to the changelog, the fixes and improvements required for the “Mars Helicopter Project” were merged in a few releases ago.

The fact that code currently ticking away on the surface of Mars can be downloaded and implemented into your own DIY project is a revelation that’s not lost on [Tim]. “It’s kind of an open-source victory because we’re flying an open-source operating system and an open-source flight software framework and flying commercial parts that you can buy off the shelf if you wanted to do this yourself someday.”

Of course, it took a whole lot more than some Python libraries and a handful of sensors from SparkFun to design and build the first space-going helicopter. But the fact that even a small slice of the technology inside of a project like Ingenuity is now available to the average hacker and maker is a huge step towards democratizing scientific research here on Earth.

[Thanks to Måns for the tip.]