Nasa designs drones for planetary exploration

Engineers working for Nasa have begun designing vehicles designed to fly through the skies of other planets.

This vehicles, under development by Nasa’s ‘Swamp Works’ division are envisaged as a future alternative to unmanned rovers.

Called ‘Extreme Access Flyers’, these craft are being built on the same design principles as popular quadcopter drones.

Unlike quadcopters however, these drones will need to fly in the thin atmosphere of Mars, or airless environments in space. For this reason, the craft will use small cold gas jets for propulsion rather than propeller blades.

“It would have enough propellant to fly for a number of minutes on Mars or on the moon, hours on an asteroid,” said Mike DuPuis, co-investigator of the Extreme Access Flyer project.

Once this propellant begins to run low, the craft will be programmed to return to a base station – such as its original lander – in order to refuel and recharge.

Nasa envisages these Extreme Access Flyers being used to sample and survey areas which are inaccessible to existing rovers.

“This is a prospecting robot,” said Rob Mueller, senior technologist for advanced projects at Swamp Works. “[Resources] 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.”

Due to the communications delay between Earth and other plants or asteroids, the Extreme Access Flyers will need to be programmed for fully-autonomous flight. This is made particularly difficult as these craft will have no access to GPS or detailed mapping information.

Nasa’s researchers have benefited greatly from the explosion in technology related to unmanned air systems and autonomous navigation. 5 years ago they believe this project would have been technically impossible, however now it can incorporate many off-the-shelf components.

A number of prototypes of these craft have already been built, including one for planets like Mars, and another for zero-gravity asteroid environments.

The hope is that the technology will be sufficiently developed that the next major mission to another celestial body could carry number of these drones.