JPL Mars Helicopter Scout

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Mars Helicopter Scout
Planned autonomous aerial scout for the Mars 2020 rover (artist concept)
Role UAV helicopter
Manufacturer Jet Propulsion Laboratory
First flight Planned: 2021
Status in development
Primary user NASA

The Mars Helicopter Scout (MHS) is a planned robotic helicopter that will test the technology to scout interesting targets for study on Mars, and plan the best driving route for future Mars rovers.[1][2] It is a technology demonstrator that will form the foundation on which more capable helicopters can be developed for aerial exploration of Mars and other planetary targets with an atmosphere.

The small drone helicopter will be deployed in 2021 from the planned Mars 2020 rover and it is expected to fly up to five times during its 30-day testing. NASA will assess whether this technology demonstrator can fly safely, and provide better mapping and guidance that would give future mission controllers more information to help with travel routes planning and hazard avoidance, as well as identifying points of interest for the rover.[3][4][5] The project was funded $23 million in March 2018 and it was announced on 11 May 2018 that the helicopter can be developed in time to be included in the Mars 2020 rover mission.


NASA's JPL and Caltech have been exploring the potential of sending an airborne scout robot to accompany the Mars 2020 rover, publishing the conceptual design of this helicopter in 2014.[6][7] The primary objective of this helicopter is to test the technology required to explore the terrain ahead of the rover to provide overhead images with approximately ten times greater resolution than orbital images, and would display features that may be occluded from the rover cameras.[8] It is expected that such scouting by small helicopters may enable future rovers to drive up to three times as far per sol.[9] This helicopter will fly no more than 3 minutes per day at altitudes ranging from 3 m to 10 m above the ground,[10] and could potentially cover a maximum distance of about 600 m (2,000 ft) daily.[11] It will use autonomous control and communicate with the rover directly after each landing.

The helicopter will undergo a 30-day test campaign and fly up to five times early in the rover's mission, as it is primarily a technology demonstration.[12] If it works as expected, NASA will be able to build on the design for future Mars missions.[10] MiMi Aung is the project lead.[13] Other team members are AeroVironment Inc., NASA Ames Research Center, and NASA Langley Research Center.[6]


Mars Helicopter Scout (artist concept)

The helicopter uses counter-rotating coaxial rotors about 1.1 m in diameter. Its payload will be a high resolution downward-looking camera for navigation, landing, and science surveying of the terrain, and a communication system to relay data to the 2020 Mars rover.[14] Although it is an aircraft, it is being constructed as a spacecraft in order to endure the g-force and vibration during launch. It also includes radiation-resistant systems capable of operating in the frigid environment of Mars.

The inconsistent Mars magnetic field precludes the use of a compass for navigation, so it will use a solar tracker camera integrated to JPL's visual inertial navigation system. Some additional inputs might include gyros, visual odometry, tilt sensors, altimeter, and hazard detectors.[15] It will use solar panels to recharge its batteries, which are six Sony Li-ion cells with a nameplate capacity of 2 Ah.[10]

The prototype uses the Snapdragon processor from Intrinsyc with a Linux operating system,[10] which also implements visual navigation via a velocity estimate derived from features tracked with a camera.[10] The processor is connected to two flight-control Microcontroller Units (MCU) to perform the needed flight-control functions.[10] Communications with the rover are through a radio link called Zig-Bee, a standard 900 MHz chipset that will be mounted in both the rover and helicopter.[10] The communication system is designed to relay data at 250 kb/s over distances of up to 1,000 m.[10]

The helicopter will be attached to the underside of the rover. It will be deployed to the surface between 60 and 90 Martian days after the landing, and then the rover will drive approximately 100 meters away for the test flights to begin.[16][17]


By mid 2016, $15 million was being requested to keep development of the helicopter on track.[18] By December 2017, engineering models of the vehicle had been tested in a simulated Martian atmosphere[10][19] and models were undergoing testing in the Arctic, but its inclusion in the mission had not yet been approved nor funded.[20]

The federal budget announced in March 2018, provides $23 million for the helicopter demonstration,[21][22] and NASA officials announced on 11 May 2018 that the helicopter was approved to fly on the Mars 2020 mission.[23] Its mass is expected to be just under 1.8 kg (4.0 lb)[24] and it will make up to 5 flights.[25][23] The helicopter is currently undergoing extensive flight-dynamics and environment testing.[10][24] If the final testing goes well, it will be integrated with the Mars 2020 rover in mid-2019.[26]


This technology demonstration will form the foundation on which more capable helicopters can be developed for more ambitious missions to planets and moons with an atmosphere.[10][27] The next generation of rotorcraft may be in the range between 5 to 15 kg with science payloads between 0.5 to 1.5 kg. These potential aircraft could have direct communication to an orbiter and may or may not continue to work with a landed asset.[17] Future helicopters could be used to explore special regions with exposed water ice or brines where Earth microbial life could potentially survive.

Mars helicopters may also be considered for fast retrieval of small sample caches back to a Mars ascent vehicle for return to Earth.[10]


Helicopter Scout
Mass Total: 1.8 kg (4.0 lb)[28]
Batteries: 273 g [10]
Height 0.8 m (31 in)[19]
Coaxial rotor diameter 1.2 m (47 in)[19]
Revolutions/min 1,900 - 2,800 rpm[23]
Blade tip speed < 0.7 Mach
Chassis dimension 14 cm cube
Power 220 W (battery, solar power charged)
Flight time up to 90 seconds, once per day
Operational time ~5 flights in ~30 days
Maximum range 600 m (2,000 ft)
Maximum altitude 400 m (1,300 ft)
Maximum speed[6] Horizontal: 10 m/s (33 ft/s)
Vertical: 3 m/s (9.8 ft/s)
2 Cameras High resolution imagery in color.

See also[edit]

Other proposed Mars aircraft:


  1. ^ "NASA Is Developing A Helicopter Drone For 2020 Mars Mission". Business 2 Community. 27 January 2015. Retrieved 28 January 2015.
  2. ^ Leone, Dan (19 November 2015). "Elachi Touts Helicopter Scout for Mars Sample-Caching Rover". SpaceNews. Retrieved 20 November 2015.
  3. ^ Brown, Dwayne; Wendel, JoAnna; Agle, DC; Northon, Karen (11 May 2018). "Mars Helicopter to Fly on NASA's Next Red Planet Rover Mission". NASA. Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  4. ^ Chang, Kenneth. "A Helicopter on Mars? NASA Wants to Try". The New York Times. Retrieved 12 May 2018.
  5. ^ Gush, Loren (11 May 2018). "NASA is sending a helicopter to Mars to get a bird's-eye view of the planet - The Mars Helicopter is happening, y'all". The Verge. Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  6. ^ a b c Generation of Mars Helicopter Rotor Model for Comprehensive Analyses. (PDF) Witold J. F. Koning, Wayne Johnson, Brian G. Allan. NASA Rotorcraft. 2018.
  7. ^ J. Balaram and P. T. Tokumaru, "Rotorcrafts for Mars Exploration," in 11th International Planetary Probe Workshop, 2014.
  8. ^ Helicopter Could be 'Scout' for Mars Rovers. NASA News. 22 January 2015.
  9. ^ Review on space robotics: Toward top-level science through space exploration (PDF). Y Gao, S Chien - Science Robotics, 2017.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Mars Helicopter Technology Demonstrator. (PDF) J. (Bob) Balaram, Timothy Canham, Courtney Duncan, Matt Golombek, Håvard Fjær Grip, Wayne Johnson, Justin Maki, Amelia Quon, Ryan Stern, and David Zhu. American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), SciTech Forum Conference; 8–12 January 2018, Kissimmee, Florida. doi:10.2514/6.2018-0023.
  11. ^ "Crazy Engineering Mars Helicopter Transcript" (PDF). JPL – NASA. 22 January 2015. Retrieved 1 September 2015.
  12. ^ Decision expected soon on adding helicopter to Mars 2020. Jeff Fout. Space News. 4 May 2018.
  13. ^ MiMi Aung - Autonomous Systems Deputy Division Manager. NASA/JPL.
  14. ^ Volpe, Richard. "2014 Robotics Activities at JPL" (PDF). Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Retrieved 1 September 2015.
  15. ^ Heading Estimation via Sun Sensing for Autonomous Navigation. Parth Shah. 2017.
  16. ^ "NASA's Mars Helicopter: Small, Autonomous Rotorcraft To Fly On Red Planet". Shubham Sharma, International Business Times. 14 May 2018.
  17. ^ a b Mars Helicopter a new challenge for flight. Universe - JPL - July 2018". Accessed: 20 July 2018.
  18. ^ Berger, Eric (24 May 2016). "Four wild technologies lawmakers want NASA to pursue". ARS Technica. Retrieved 24 May 2016.
  19. ^ a b c d Helicopter to accompany NASA's next Mars rover to Red Planet. Stephen Clarke, Spaceflight Now. 14 May 2018.
  20. ^ Dubois, Chantelle (29 November 2017). "Drones on Mars? NASA Projects May Soon Use Drones for Space Exploration". All About Circuits.
  21. ^ NASA Mars exploration efforts turn to operating existing missions and planning sample return. Jeff Foust, Space News. 23 February 2018.
  22. ^ NASA to decide soon whether flying drone will launch with Mars 2020 rover. Stephen Clarke, Spaceflight Now. 15 March 2018.
  23. ^ a b c Mars Helicopter to Fly on NASA's Next Red Planet Rover Mission. Karen Northon, NASA News. 11 May 2018.
  24. ^ a b Agle, AG; Johnson, Alana (28 March 2019). "NASA's Mars Helicopter Completes Flight Tests". NASA. Retrieved 28 March 2019.
  25. ^ Yes, NASA Is Actually Sending a Helicopter to Mars: Here's What It Will Do. Sarah Lewin, Space. 12 May 2018.
  26. ^ NASA's Mars Helicopter Enters Final Testing. Ryan Whitwam. 10 June 2019.
  27. ^ Mars Helicopter a new challenge for flight. NASA JPL: Universe Bulletin, July 2018. Accessed: 9 August 2018.
  28. ^ a b Mars Helicopter Scout. video presentation at Caltech.

External links[edit]