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.



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 lice ..