At the meeting held Wednesday at New York City’s NASDAQ Marketsite, AeroVironment has announced, that it has partnered up with NASA`s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and displayed a model of the Mars Helicopter to build the first drone to fly on Mars.

AeroVironment President and Chief Executive Officer Wahid Nawabi, explained that “AeroVironment’s deep, rich and diverse history of innovation combined with our experience with near-space aircraft like Pathfinder and Helios make us uniquely suited to collaborate with NASA and JPL on this historic, interplanetary venture.”

Flying at about 100,000 feet on Earth is much like flying on the surface of Mars – same air density – so AeroVironment used airfoil design principles and simulation tools the technology company learned from record high-altitude flights and incorporated them into the Mars helicopter design.

NASA to build first drone to fly on Mars

Development of the helicopter began in August 2013. The Mars Helicopter weighs under four pounds and its fuselage is about the size of a softball. The propulsion system uses twin, coaxial or counter-rotating blades that negate the need for a tail rotor: something important when considering the size and weight costs associated with space travel. The rotors also spin at a rate of almost 3,000 rpm – about 10 times the rate of an Earth-borne helicopter.

In May 2016, a Mars Helicopter rotor and landing gear prototype integrated with a JPL-developed controller was created by AeroVironment which demonstrated free flight in a simulated Mars atmosphere proving that it is possible to fly on the Red Planet. It was then delivered to NASA/JPL.

In the fall of 2017, major helicopter subsystems were delivered by AeroVironment for integration into Mars-representative engineering development models. JPL built two Engineering Development Model Mars Helicopters. It integrated the AeroVironment rotor, landing gear, fuselage shell and solar panel substrate with JPL-developed fuselage comprising flight avionics, onboard power, telecom, flight control and sensors.

One of the models was used for a flight demonstration in JPL’s large 25-foot space simulator and the other was used for environmental testing which included not just thermal tests to ensure the vehicle could endure the freezing Mars nights, but also vibration tests to ensure the model’s ruggedness to be able to withstand the launch. Both vehicles passed the rigorous tests, paving the way for the development and fabrication of the final, Mars-bound version.

AeroVironment is currently working on the final flight versions of the UAV. Based on the plans, JPL will install the finished Mars Helicopter into the Mars 2020 Rover for its ride to Mars. A fixed date is yet to be determined.

Watch a video of NASA Mars Helicopter Technology Demonstration