If you think having a package delivered to your doorstep by an Amazon drone is amazing, how about a drone that can prospect asteroid or even Mars?
That’s the vision of the Swamp Works lab at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. A team of engineers is developing a robotic drone that will be able to fly across the oxygen-thin surface of Mars or the airless environs of an asteroid, will be tasked with gathering samples from areas inaccessible to rolling vehicles like rovers.
“The first step in being able to use resources on Mars or an asteroid is to find out where the resources are,” said Swamp Works Senior Technologist Rob Mueller in a media statement. “They are most likely in hard-to-access areas where there is permanent shadow. Some of the crater walls are angled 30 degrees or more, and that’s far too steep for a traditional rover to navigate and climb.”
Dubbed Extreme Access Flyers, the drones should be able to extract small amounts of planetary soil to search for signs of water-ice. Adding to the cool factor is the fact that the drones will use propellants made from resources obtained from the planets. “The machines would be able to execute hundreds of explorative sorties during their mission,” NASA writer Steven Siceloff said. “[The drones] would be small enough for a lander to bring several of them to the surface at once, so if one fails, the mission isn’t lost.”
To deal with the thin or non-existent atmospheres of other celestial bodies, the Flyers will require much larger rotors then average earthbound UAVs and the robotic prospectors will have to rely on internal autonomous sensors since extraterrestrial planets don’t have GPS satellites as guides.
The drones will employ cold-gas jets using oxygen or water vapor to provide lift and maneuverability. The drones will be programmed to recognize terrain and landmarks for guidance.
“It would have enough propellant to fly for a number of minutes on Mars or on the moon, hours on an asteroid,” said DuPuis.
The Flyer project is not the first NASA has deployed using drone technology. Last year, the agency announced plans to use a quadcopter drone to explore the surface of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Dubbed the Titan Aerial Daughtercraft, the 22-pound drone would detach from a balloon or lander to “acquire close-up, high resolution imagery and mapping data of the surface, land at multiple locations to acquire microscopic imagery and samples of solid and liquid material, return the samples to the mothership for analysis, and recharge from an RTG on the mothership to enable multiple sorties.”
Jason is a longstanding contributor to DroneLife with an avid interest in all things tech. He focuses on anti-drone technologies and the public safety sector; police, fire, and search and rescue.
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