Dropship offers safe landings for Mars rovers

Jul 04, 2014
The 'dropship' quadcopter and mockup rover used for testing ESA's latest StarTiger project, Dropter. The dropship steers itself to lower a rover gently onto a safe patch of the rocky martian surface. Starting from scratch for the eight-month project, the Dropter team was challenged to produce vision-based navigation and hazard detection and avoidance for the dropship. It has to identify a safe landing site and height before winching down its passenger rover on a set of cables. Flying to a maximum height of 17 m, the dropship comes gently down to 10 m above the ground, where it begins lowering the rover on a 5 m-long bridle, coming lower until the rover touches down. Then it returns to a safe altitude. The test platform is about 1 m by 1 m in size, with 41 cm diameter rotors. Its total lift-off mass is about 16.8 kg, with the dropship weighing 13.2 kg and the rover 3.6 kg. Maximum flight time is limited to about 15 minutes due to battery capacity. Credit: Airbus Defence & Space

The dramatic conclusion to ESA's latest StarTiger project: a 'dropship' quadcopter steers itself to lower a rover gently onto a safe patch of the rocky martian surface.

StarTiger's Dropter project was tasked with developing and demonstrating a European precision-landing capability for Mars and other targets.

The Skycrane that lowered NASA's Curiosity rover onto Mars showed the potential of this approach, precisely delivering rovers to their science targets while avoiding rock fields, slopes and other hazards.

"StarTiger is a fresh approach to space engineering," explains Peter de Maagt, overseeing the project. "Take a highly qualified, well-motivated team, gather them at a single well-equipped site, then give them a fixed time to solve a challenging technical problem."

This latest team was hosted at Airbus Defence & Space's facility in Bremen, Germany, joined by engineers from the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, Portgual's Spin.Works aeronautics company, and Poland's Poznań University of Technology Institute of Control and Information Engineering.

Starting from scratch for the eight-month project, the Dropter team was challenged to produce vision-based navigation and hazard detection and avoidance for the dropship.

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The dramatic conclusion to ESA’s latest StarTiger project: a ‘dropship’ quadcopter steers itself to lower a rover gently onto a safe patch of the rocky martian surface. StarTiger’s Dropter project was tasked with developing and demonstrating a European precision-landing capability for Mars and other targets. Starting from scratch for the eight-month project, the Dropter team was challenged to produce vision-based navigation and hazard detection and avoidance for the dropship. It has to identify a safe landing site and height before winching down its passenger rover on a set of cables. Flight testing took place at Airbus Defence and Space’s Trauen test site in northern Germany. Credit: ESA/DFKI/Spin.Works/Poznañ University of Technology, IAII/Airbus Defence & Space

It has to identify a safe landing site and height before winching down its passenger rover on a set of cables.

Flying to a maximum height of 17 m, the dropship comes gently down to 10 m above the ground, where it begins lowering the rover on a 5 m-long bridle, coming lower until the rover touches down. Then it returns to a safe altitude.

Flight testing took place at Airbus's Trauen site in northern Germany, which back in the 1940s was the scene of spaceplane pioneer Eugen Sänger's rocket experiments.

A 40 m by 40 m Mars-scape was created, littered with hazardous rocks, where the dropship had to pick a safe spot to deliver its passenger.

The dropship was customised for the project from commercial quadcopter components, with a smaller drone used for preparatory indoor testing.

Using GPS and inertial systems to fly into position, it then switched to vision-based navigation supplemented by a laser range-finder and barometer to land its autonomously.

This demonstration having proved the concept, the dropship approach is now available for follow-on development by planetary missions to come.

Explore further: Image: Curiosity Mars rover beside sandstone target 'Windjana'

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hannodb
4 / 5 (4) Jul 04, 2014
They did this "test" in the open air??? FAIL!!!

Did any of them consider the fact that the air pressure on Mars is 0.1% than that of earth? What good will those propellers be without enough air to push against?

Maybe, before they even started this project, they should first have tried to design a propeller that would actually create enough lift on Mars?

Just a thought.
nkalanaga
4 / 5 (5) Jul 04, 2014
Maybe they wanted to see if the concept worked on Earth, or if the device failed and the payload was destroyed, before spending money on a thin-air version? If they can't make it work here, what's the point of going further?
NoTennisNow
4.5 / 5 (4) Jul 04, 2014
Anything might work on earth, but it seems they should have calculated the weight and size of the rotors needed to generate the required lift. Should be easy to do for a competent aerospace engineer. Backs of envelopes should suffice.
Nik_2213
3.7 / 5 (3) Jul 04, 2014
Hey, propellers' thrust and rotors' lift scale predictably. The Arean version might have wider rotors, more blades and rotate much, much faster.

IIRC, NASA did the hard work on propeller propulsion some years ago, when they designed a motor-glider drone that would be capable of exploring 'Marineris'...
nkalanaga
5 / 5 (1) Jul 05, 2014
The key feature of this device isn't the rotors, but the ability to autonomously find, maneuver to, and land on, a safe location in a cluttered landing area.

As Nik_2213 said, flying machines for Mars have been well studied.
The Singularity
1 / 5 (1) Jul 09, 2014
what the ??. none of the flying parts have any use on mars at all. what a waste of time & money. you cant test a concept that blatantly doesn't work. @ nik 0.1% atmosphere, 0.1. you do the math. stark raving mad.
Shocked that ESA would fund such an idea. The only part they actually needed was a hazard detection & avoidance system.