NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will be sending a helicopter to the Red Planet on the upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission. It will land on Mars while attached to the bottom of the rover in February 2021. During the first 30 days of the mission, it will undertake several autonomous flights, each lasting up to 90 seconds. The mission will transmit inflight images of Mars back to Earth for the first time.

The Mars helicopter technology will pave the way for many future scientific and exploratory missions to Mars. Similar robots could serve as flying eyes for future rovers, exploring the surroundings and finding the best route for the rover.

Energy-Efficient Components for Extreme Conditions

For the small helicopter to fly, it takes an enormous engineering effort. The thin air on Mars is comparable to the conditions prevailing on Earth at an altitude of 30 km. Even accounting for the reduced Martian gravity, Source: Maxon MotorSource: Maxon Motorthe helicopter must therefore be particularly light (1.8 kg) and can only carry small batteries. This requires components that are extremely energy-efficient, a requirement that also applies to Maxon’s DC motors. The drives from Switzerland have proven themselves in many previous Mars missions and will also be used in JPL’s helicopter. Six DCX precision micro motors with a diameter of 10 mm are responsible for moving the swashplate and hence adjusting the inclination of the rotor blades (i.e., for controlling the vehicle).

The helicopter propulsion system is designed and built by Aerovironment under contract from JPL. Maxon engineers have been working closely with the specialists at Aerovironment who are world experts in building micro air vehicles. After a year of development work, NASA’s approval for the inclusion of the helicopter project in the Mars 2020 mission is an additional motivation for the Swiss drive specialists.

Temperature Measurement of Mars with the Help of a DC Motor

The Mars helicopter adds to several other Mars projects that Maxon is currently involved in. For example, the European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover includes more than 50 drives located in the wheels, drill head, analysis unit and camera mast. This mission is also scheduled for launch in 2020. In November 2018, NASA's InSight lander will study the Red Planet's seismic activity and planet core temperature. A powerful and robust DC motor from Maxon drives a pile driver type mechanism that will burrow almost five meters deep into the Martian soil.

To contact the author of this article, email