The problem faced by NASA’s Mars rovers is the fact that these rovers are not able to analyze the terrain that lays before them. NASA is busy developing a way to determine that via robotic helicopters which would be able to carry out land scouting and relay data to engineers that would subsequently help them to come up with the ideal route.
The current family of rovers is only capable of seeing as far as the respective camera masts allow, which translates into dealing with a huge number of blind spots. Although the spacecrafts that are orbiting the planet can map the land but it still is quite an ineffective way of helping rovers to navigate.
The current solution being considered by NASA pertains to deploying small robotic helicopters. These helicopters will be about the size of a box of tissue papers. They would scout the land and have this information ready for the next generation of rovers to come. The plan is in its proof-of-concept phase as of now. These helicopters will be used for flying ahead and using sensors and camera to point out any obstacles and highlight amazing features thus enabling NASA to identify the best route.
The tricky part of the project is to make a design that is capable of performing the task at hand. According to NASA, it has to be lightweight (upper limit of 1kg) and must sport a pair of blades that counter-rotate and measure a span of 1.1 meter, which is surely large, however, this has to be done owing to the very thin Martian atmosphere. The rotors have to be large enough to be able to generate the required lift. Even with this size, the blades should spin at 2,400 RPM.
These helicopters will feature solar panels on top of their rotors. These panels will allow for enough power so that the helicopters are capable of executing takeoffs and landings while exhibiting endurance of 2-3 minutes of flight time per Martian day for a distance of 1,640ft. It also manages to keep the helicopter warm throughout the Martian night.
NASA has been conducting tests at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California in a vacuum chamber where Martian atmosphere is being simulated. Watch the video below to see the robotic helicopters work out their magic!