Tag Archives: helicopter

NASA’s space helicopter is one month away from landing on Mars

Did you ever dare to dream of the day you’d see a helicopter in space? Well, rest easy, your watch has come to an end — NASA’s Ingenuity, the “Mars Helicopter”, is one month away from touching down on the red planet.

Members of the NASA Mars Helicopter team inspect the vehicle on Feb. 1, 2019.

Ingenuity is currently onboard NASA’s Perseverance rover, the US’ latest Mars-bound rover. It’s the first American mission to Mars since 2018’s InSight, but it was only one of three missions sent out to Mars in 2020 alongside the UAE’s Hope orbiter and China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter, lander, and rover.

While all of them are very exciting, Ingenuity will be the first helicopter to actually be sent to space, ever. NASA is expecting it to touch down on Mars on February 18.

Flying on new horizons

“NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter is the first aircraft humanity has sent to another planet to attempt powered, controlled flight,” NASA explains in a press kit. “If its experimental flight test program succeeds, the data returned could benefit future explorations of the Red Planet – including those by astronauts – by adding the aerial dimension, which is not available today.”

The helicopter is pretty small, similar to a medium-large commercial drone, and comes equipped with two carbon-fiber rotors. These will spin at around 2,400 rpm in different directions so as to stabilize the craft in flight. That speed of rotation is many times faster than those used by passenger helicopters on Earth, due to their smaller size and Mars‘ thinner atmosphere both. Since the air is thinner there, rotors have to put in a lot of extra work to generate the same lift they would produce on our planet.

If all goes well, Ingenuity could completely change how we explore Mars, and other planets with atmospheres. Up to now we’ve been using rovers, which have quite a few benefits (ground vehicles have great energy efficiency since they don’t need to stay aloft, and weight is much less of an issue, for example). However, they’re also much slower than any other vehicles in general, as they have to contend with terrain features. If Ingenuity manages to do its job, and do it well — and, especially, if it can withstand Mars’ harsh environment — space helicopters will definitely become much more common in the future.

But until then, Perseverance still needs to reach its target, and Ingenuity still needs to prove it can fly on Mars. Fingers crossed.

Animation of Mars helicopter and Mars 2020 rover. Credits: NASA/JPL-CalTech.

NASA wants to send a tiny helicopter along with the next 2020 rover mission

Animation of Mars helicopter and Mars 2020 rover. Credits: NASA/JPL-CalTech.

Animation of Mars helicopter and Mars 2020 rover. Credits: NASA/JPL-CalTech.

It’s an amazing time to be alive. Consider this: humans have sent a man-made spacecraft around each and every planet in the solar system, as well as some of their moons. Although billions of miles might separate Earth from other planets in the solar system, and despite everything being in motion, we’ve managed this extraordinary feat.

No other planet has been more visited by our contraptions than Mars. We’ve sent orbiters, landers, and even 4×4 labs on wheels to the Red Planet. Now, for the first time, NASA wants to send a helicopter to Mars, which is meant to fly in very rarefied Martian atmosphere.

“Exploring the Red Planet with NASA’s Mars Helicopter exemplifies a successful marriage of science and technology innovation and is a unique opportunity to advance Mars exploration for the future,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency headquarters in Washington. “After the Wright Brothers proved 117 years ago that powered, sustained, and controlled flight was possible here on Earth, another group of American pioneers may prove the same can be done on another world.”

The little helicopter measures just one-meter long in rotor diameter, and its body is about the size of a small cat. It took four years of testing and tweaking to make the first prototype of the Mars-bound helicopter.

One of the biggest challenges was figuring out how to build a helicopter that can fly in an atmosphere that’s about a thousand times thinner than on Earth. Just imagine that hovering just 10 feet (3 m) above the Martian surface is like soaring at 100,000 feet (30,000 m) above Earth. The highest a helicopter has ever flown is 40,000 feet (12,000 m), where the air becomes too thin to keep helicopters aloft.

“To make it fly at that low atmospheric density, we had to scrutinize everything, make it as light as possible while being as strong and as powerful as it can possibly be,” said Mimi Aung, Mars Helicopter project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The Martian helicopter also features another innovation: it’s powered by solar cells that charge lithium batteries. Meanwhile, internal heating mechanisms will keep the flying machine warm through the frigid Martian night.

NASA’s Mars Helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft, will travel with the agency’s Mars 2020 rover, currently scheduled to launch in July 2020, to demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Because it takes at least four minutes for light to travel to Mars from Earth (a delay that can grow to half an hour depending on how far the two planets are relative to each other), remote controlling the helicopter is out of the question. Instead, the machine is designed to receive pre-programmed commands from Earth, then execute them on its own, always autonomously navigating the environment in real-time.

The Mars Helicopter is expected to touch down on the Martian surface in February 2021, piggybacking a car-sized rover — a bigger, upgraded version of the Curiosity rover. After the rover lands on the Martian surface, the rotorcraft will detach and take off. Its first flight is intended to be short: just a 10-foot climb for 30 seconds before returning to the ground. If this initial test works well, the craft is supposed to make four more flights over a 30-day test period, with each flight getting progressively longer and more complex than the previous. If this little helicopter works as intended, it will set the stage for future, more complex rotorcrafts designed to act as scouts that can explore and map regions of Mars where scientists can’t even dream to send a rover.

“The ability to see clearly what lies beyond the next hill is crucial for future explorers,” said Zurbuchen. “We already have great views of Mars from the surface as well as from orbit. With the added dimension of a bird’s-eye view from a ‘marscopter,’ we can only imagine what future missions will achieve.”

copter to plane

This 10-engine-copter made by NASA can morph into a plane in mid-flight

Inspired by quadcopters and airplanes alike, NASA engineered made the best of both worlds and designed a 10-engine electric craft that can hover like a drone, but also cruise like a plane. Called Greased Lightning or GL-10, the craft is allegedly four times more efficient than a helicopter in cruise mode, while also retaining vertical take off capabilities.

It’s been some time since the concept has been in works, and as testament lie some of the battered prototypes which had to make a ‘hard landing’. In any event, the prototype they’re working with now and demoed on YouTube is quite impressive. The current version weighs 62 pounds with a 10-foot wingspan, and can perform an in-air transition to airplane in no time and with no difficulties. According to  Bill Fredericks, an aerospace engineer at NASA, the model can be scaled-up to “make also a great one to four-person-size personal air vehicle.” How freakin’ awesome is that?

via PopMechs

Helicopter Student

New record for human powered flight set by engineering students

A talented team of students from the University of Maryland’s Clark School of Engineering has set a new record for the longest flight time for a human-powered helicopter. The helicopter in question, called “Gamera II”, after the flying monster turtle of Japanese films and the university’s terrapin mascot, was devised and built by the students themselves.

Helicopter StudentFirst thing that came into mind when I first read about the young engineers’ accomplishment was Leonardo da Vinci’s famous aerial screw concept. In his late fifteenth century notes, one of the most important figures of the Renascence sketched a remarkable design in which  a flying machine resembling a helical screw would be able to lift in the air, powered by man’s mechanical efforts. “If this instrument made with a screw be well made – that is to say, made of linen of which the pores are stopped up with starch and be turned swiftly, the said screw will make its spiral in the air and it will rise high.”

Like many of his invention’s, though, da Vinci’s aerial screw never left the drawing board, but it served as a fascinating piece of science, and dared many to fantasize and dream – the first actual helicopter wasn’t built until the 1940s.

The Gamera II  is built of lightweight carbon fiber rods, with strength lent from the team’s own “micro truss” system of design, which allowed the human powered helicopter to weigh only 75 pounds, unmanned. Kyle Gluesenkamp, a 135-pound Ph.D. candidate in the mechanical engineering department, powered the craft with both foot pedals and a hand crank last week which allowed it to lift for 50 seconds of flight. on record of approximately 35 seconds. If verified by the National Aeronautic Association, this new time will supersede the team’s previous world record of 11.4 seconds set last July. The Gamera II, which uses about $150,000 worth of materials, has four 43-foot rotors that rotate at about 20 revolutions per minute.

The team is pursuing the $250,000 prize offered by the American Helicopter Society, through its Sikorsky Human-Powered Helicopter Competition, in which a human-powered helicopter needs to fly at least three meters above the ground for at least 60 seconds, all while remaining withing a 10 by 10 square, in order to win. The competition has been open for 30-years, but in all this time no one team was able to meet the winning conditions. Inderjit Chopra, the professor advising the project, said that Gamera II reached an estimated altitude of 4 feet – nearly half the required altitude to meet the contest’s terms.

Next, the team hopes to reach a flight duration of 60 seconds, which should bring it one step towards completing the AHS Sikorsky Prize goals.

The Gamera Project’s website

Jetpack successfully climbs to 5,000 feet. Can be yours for $100,000

For most, a jetpack can be considered more of a SciFi concept than a viable, realistic flying contraction. However, recent advances from a New Zealand aeronautical company might have paved the way for jetpacks to finally become commercially mainstream. Exiting, right?

Just recently this month, the aforementioned company, Martin Aircraft Co.,  has successfully tested one of its jetpack model to a whooping altitude of  5,000 feet above Canterbury, New Zealand. The previous altitude record for the fan-driven, wearable aircraft was 50 feet (15 meters), meaning this model has successfully risen to an altitude 100 times higher than any previous attempt.

“This successful test brings the future another step closer,” Glenn Martin, the jetpack’s inventor and founder of the New Zealand-based Martin Aircraft Co., said in a statement.

How safe are jetpacks though? Well, one can imagine that this is its biggest drawback – at one mill high up in the sky, if the engine fails, you’re pretty much done for. As such, the company has installed a safety system which works around the ballistic parachute principle. A ballistic parachute is just like a normal parachute except that it uses a small explosive charge to deploy itself really, really fast. It works safely even if the engine fails at a close altitude too, thanks to its very small response time.

The jetpack pushed the envelope for climb rate  too, as the SciFi dream come true pushed 800 feet per minute or 4 meters per second, with the capability to rise even faster; as well as flight duration (9 minutes and 46 seconds).

“This test also validated our flight model, proved thrust to weight ratio and proved our ability to fly a jetpack as an unmanned aerial vehicle, which will be key to some of the jetpack’s future emergency/search and rescue and military applications,” Glenn Martin said.

Below you can watch a short video of the successful Martin Co. jetpack test run, in which they strapped a dummy inside the jetpack, the latter was controlled via a wireless remote from a neighboring helicopter.

If you’re willing to put down the $100,000 asking price, later this year you might be seen souring away through your neighborhood, when the jetpack will become commercially available.