The Engineering Behind Ingenuity
On February 18, 2021, after years of development and an 8-month journey, the Perseverance Rover finally made it to begin its mission -- investigating whether Mars harbored life in its past. However, the Mars Rover was not alone in its journey.

Ingenuity, the helicopter that accompanied Perseverance in Mars is the first man-made powered flying object that we have sent to space... and its importance in space expoloration cannot be understated.

Learn more about the engineering that made it possible.
Flying on Mars

The Ingenuity drone’s main goal was to be a technology demonstration and prove the feasibility of powered flight on another planet. It was intended that the drone perform up to five test flights in a 30 day period, demonstrating its capabilities and gathering valuable flight data for future missions. Six months after Perseverance arrived on Mars, the drone has flown 13 times and for a total of 2,830 meters as of September 4, 2021 and shows no signs of slowing down.

Flying on the red planet is a challenge on its own. Initially, some people might think that flying on Mars is easier than doing so on Earth -- weaker gravity means gaining altitude requires less energy right? Well yes, but no! Even though it is correct that the force of gravity is less on Mars, the atmosphere is much thinner. So thin, that the atmospheric density on Mars is only about 1% of the atmospheric density on Earth.
Helicopters work by creating rotary motion on the blades which push air downwards thus creating lift. When the atmospheric volume is less than 1% of Earth’s, it becomes very difficult to get the drone to fly (due to lack of air). This difficulty is despite the reduced force of gravity. In order to address this issue, JPL engineers had to design a drone that not only spun its blades faster in order to create more lift, but they also had to make the drone as light as possible. Thus the rotors on the Ingenuity drone have a rotor speed of 2400 rpm, 5 times what is needed on Earth.

Weight was also a massive barrier in designing the drone. To get the Ingenuity drone to fly on the Martian surface the weight of the drone had to be reduced to just 1.8 kilograms. In order to decrease the weight of the Ingenuity drone, JPL engineers decided for the drone to have a battery capacity of 130-140 kj of energy with a weight of 273 grams. To put that into context an iPhone 12 Pro with a leather case weighs 278 grams. This is enough for a 90 second flight which is short, but it's more than enough to demonstrate flight on another planet. The battery recharges through a solar panel on the top of the drone.
The drone was also fitted with 4 carbon fiber blades which also served to reduce the weight of the drone. Carbon fiber is a material that has recently been heavily used in the aerospace industry due to its low weight and great strength. For example, 50% of the weight of the Boeing 787 is the weight of composite materials.

NASA also decided not to put any laboratory equipment on the drone to keep the weight lighter and the energy consumption lower as most lab equipment was already on the Perseverance rover.

The Mars helicopter is also equipped with antennas that communicate with the Earth with the help of the Mars rover and Mars orbiters. The body also has insulation material to help protect the avionics, or the brain of the helicopter, from the extreme cold temperatures on Mars. Its ultra-light legs made of carbon fiber are not only strong but also are lightweight, further reducing the weight of the drone.

Ingenuity already successfully demonstrated that flying to another planet is possible. The future is likely to hold other robotic flying devices part of other missions to Mars. Hopefully, this future comes sooner rather than later.
Track Ingenuity's progress through its official website here:
SEPTEMBER 19, 2021
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