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ESA Shows Off Quadcopter Landing Concept For Mars Rovers 104

Posted by samzenpus
from the drop-that-anywhere dept.
coondoggie writes Taking a page from NASA's rocket powered landing craft from its most recent Mars landing mission, the European Space Agency is showing off a quadcopter that the organization says can steer itself to smoothly lower a rover onto a safe patch of the rocky Martian surface. The ESA said its dropship, known as the StarTiger's Dropter is indeed a customized quadcopter drone that uses a GPS, camera and inertial systems to fly into position, where it then switches to vision-based navigation supplemented by a laser range-finder and barometer to lower and land a rover autonomously.
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ESA Shows Off Quadcopter Landing Concept For Mars Rovers

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  • GPS on Mars (Score:5, Funny)

    by AF_Cheddar_Head (1186601) on Monday July 07, 2014 @06:23PM (#47403457)

    Really, are you sure it isn't Galileo?

    • by frovingslosh (582462) on Monday July 07, 2014 @07:07PM (#47403729)

      a customized quadcopter drone that uses a GPS, camera and inertial systems to fly into position .....

      Yup, hate to break it to you rocket scientists at NASA, but there is a slight flaw in this design for use on Mars.

      • Re:GPS on Mars (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Charliemopps (1157495) on Monday July 07, 2014 @07:15PM (#47403779)

        a customized quadcopter drone that uses a GPS, camera and inertial systems to fly into position .....

        Yup, hate to break it to you rocket scientists at NASA, but there is a slight flaw in this design for use on Mars.

        I'd suspect those rocket scientists planned to, oh, I dunno, put GPS satellites into orbit around mars prior to landing the rover?

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          ESA, not NASA

        • With the density of air on Mars you'll need rather large helicopter blades to get sufficient lift.
          • by dbIII (701233)
            Which is why this is so interesting.
          • by Vulch (221502)

            As a proof of concept running a quadcopter is a lot easier, but for an actual Mars landing it wouldn't be too difficult to build one with rockets instead of rotors. Hobbyist quadcopter autopilots will run a wide variety of motors with a few tweaks to parameters, rotors to rockets is a larger step but not beyond the realm of a reasonable software project.

            • by kuiken (115647)

              A quadcopter is are partly steered by torque. I dont think it would be simple to switch from rotors to rockets

              • by Yoda222 (943886)
                It's quite easy to generate torque with rockets. The relation torque/vertical force is not the same, but the concept is similar.
          • by rtb61 (674572)

            So the smart designer would incorporate the solar panels into the blades so that upon landing when folded up they could serve another purpose. It is all about making the best use of mass.

        • by Intron (870560)

          MPS maybe, not GPS.

        • I sure don't suspect that. Putting up a GPS constellation is no small task. And here on earth there is a significant Earth bound support network that the GPS network interacts with to keep everything working.

          Yes, it seems crazy that a space agency could overlook this. But less crazy than putting an entire GPS system in place. I actually think that this is more likely to be a manifestation of extremely poor journalism. But there is not going to be a GPS system in place over Mars before this gizmo ever att

        • by JWSmythe (446288)

          That would be a cool trick. I think it will be a long long time before we see that.

          GPS, and GLONASS have 24 satellites for global coverage. Galileo has 27. Beidou has 10 right now, but has limited coverage. It will have 35 when it's fully operational.

          Most (all?) require ground stations to keep them updated, so it isn't just a matter of throwing some satellites up and having GPS on another planet. As I recall, GPS satellite service will degrade to unusable somewhere between 90 to 180 days. [insert obl

      • Re:GPS on Mars (Score:5, Informative)

        by faffod (905810) on Monday July 07, 2014 @07:18PM (#47403795)

        a customized quadcopter drone that uses a GPS, camera and inertial systems to fly into position .....

        Yup, hate to break it to you rocket scientists at NASA, but there is a slight flaw in this design for use on Mars.

        I hate to break it to you, but ESA is the rocket scientists in Europe, not NASA....

        • Well, the up front costs for the Martian GPS system will be high, that is to say, astronomical. May be some maintenance problems as well. Other than that and the near absence of an atmosphere it sounds good to go.

          • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

            GPS is just a stand-in for the system they would use on Mars, which would be a much simplified version using existing satellites and the transport vehicle for the lander itself.

            The atmosphere in Mars is fine for a quadcopter if designed correctly. How do you think the parachutes on NASA landers work?

            • GPS is just a stand-in for the system they would use on Mars, which would be a much simplified version using existing satellites and the transport vehicle for the lander itself.

              The atmosphere in Mars is fine for a quadcopter if designed correctly. How do you think the parachutes on NASA landers work?

              I'm not sure what you mean by "simpler" system, what would it be? AFAIK it takes signals from 4 GPS satellites to get a fix, I think that it could be done with 3 having knowledge of the approximate position. That's with 3 or 4 satellites with GPS electronics in view at once. This implies that there need to be several more than 3 satellites in the constellation to be certain of having 3 or 4 in the correct position at any time. I don't think that the orbits of multi purpose satellites would be the ones ne

        • Why should be ESA be less capable of installing a global positioning system around Mars than NASA?
          • by slew (2918)

            It isn't about capability, it's about € the ESA can't afford to put up Galileo, l suspect that putting up a global navigation system around Mars would be a bit cost prohibitive for this application.

            Part of the problem with deploying a GNS is that you need ground uplink station for reference correction (inertial clock correction and fault detection isn't generally sufficient for good long term accuracy). At least they might have less of a problem with ionospheric propagation delay (Mars still has a sin

  • by TechyImmigrant (175943) on Monday July 07, 2014 @06:25PM (#47403467) Journal

    Being a European probe, once landed it will open a small cafe serving croissants and excellent espresso.

    • by Nutria (679911) on Monday July 07, 2014 @06:28PM (#47403493)

      Being a European probe, once landed it will ...

      Moan and bitch about Spirit & Opportunity spying on it, while in turn spying on economically valuable sectors of Spirit & Opportunity.

      • Being a European probe, once landed it will ...

        Moan and bitch about Spirit & Opportunity spying on it, while in turn spying on economically valuable sectors of Spirit & Opportunity.

        More likely it will just overcharge them for coffee when they present dollars instead of Euros.

    • by dunng808 (448849)

      We have GPS on Mars? I like the cafe idea, American probes are so anal.

    • by MightyYar (622222)

      Or a FUTBOL stadium.

    • by Snufu (1049644)

      Being a European probe, once landed it will open a small cafe serving croissants and excellent espresso.

      Warning: Probe components designed by different European countries may refuse to communicate with each other.

  • by SuricouRaven (1897204) on Monday July 07, 2014 @06:26PM (#47403477)

    Mars has an atmosphere. Barely - atmospheric pressure is 0.006 earth-atmospheres. Maybe 0.01 if the weather is right and at a low enough point. You'd get bugger-all lift from a 'copter, quad or otherwise. Even in the nice one-third G, that thing isn't flying. It's hard enough getting something down by parachute - those rovers have to be built to take a nasty impact, because even with a huge parachute and low gravity they still hit the ground hard.

    • by fche (36607)

      They must be planning ahead for the time when terraforming is complete.

    • by roc97007 (608802)

      That was my thought also. What's next, eighth ray buoyancy tanks?

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Nor will GPS help much on Mars. It's like this is a thinly veined cover for developing a military drone for dropping materiel into a battle zone. Everything about it seems geared towards terrestrial use.

      • A possibility, but a poor cover. If I wished to covertly develop a military supply delivery system - and I wouldn't, because there's nothing really illicit about that to justify such a cover-up - I would think disaster relief a better justification. Think of a truck loaded with a hundred of these things driving as far as it can into an area struck by earthquake, hurricane, or other natural disaster - the drones launch, fly away, seek out survivors, and drop to each one a 'three day survival pack' consisting

    • by AK Marc (707885)
      This is what I came to read. Someone asserting NASA's calculations on air worthiness being wrong. No evidence. Just some assertions that it'd be hard, so we should consider it impossible, even if NASA says it's possible.
      • by fche (36607) on Monday July 07, 2014 @06:58PM (#47403673)

        It's ESA, not NASA, and the focus of the work was apparently the vision-based guidance system, not the quadcopter propulsion (which indeed would be absurd on Mars).

        http://www.esa.int/Our_Activit... [esa.int]

      • He's right though, that thing will drop like a rock. ...aaand apparently it actually is an official release: http://www.esa.int/Our_Activit... [esa.int]

      • by Tablizer (95088)

        Someone asserting NASA's calculations on air worthiness being wrong...

        It's those commie Global Copterists trying to push their socialist sodomy agenda on us hard-working patriotic air creators!

    • Horrible Article (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 07, 2014 @06:57PM (#47403667)

      Here is the official press release [esa.int], which states the real goal of the project:

      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.

      The quadcopter was just a COTS stand-in for testing their software.

      • Which was just changes the problem to a different domain... diverting the probe is going to be a stone cold bitch. By the time you're a couple of hundred feet up, you're only a few seconds from landing and it'll take quite a bit of energy to divert any significant distance. (Energy == weight.) And that's without pondering how amazing the optics and processing system will have to be.

        Interesting work to be sure, but applying it in practice will be even more so.

    • Yes, it isgoing to work, actually. A proof of concept vehicle has already been flown in a chamber at Martian atmospheric pressure.
    • by Warshadow (132109) on Monday July 07, 2014 @08:41PM (#47404199)

      Some friends of mine did exactly this as a research project last year.They did some testing at NASA Langley using some of their low pressure testing facilities.

      It should be possible in a few years for sure and it may even be possible now. That being said, it's quite possibly the least efficient way to do anything anywhere, especially so on Mars. The rotor blades have to be enormous in order to generate enough lift. They also made some assumptions about materials used that aren't realistic right now, 5 years from now, probably, but not right now.

    • by bondsbw (888959)

      Oblig xkcd [xkcd.com].

    • Mars has an atmosphere. Barely - atmospheric pressure is 0.006 earth-atmospheres. Maybe 0.01 if the weather is right and at a low enough point. You'd get bugger-all lift from a 'copter, quad or otherwise. Even in the nice one-third G, that thing isn't flying. It's hard enough getting something down by parachute - those rovers have to be built to take a nasty impact, because even with a huge parachute and low gravity they still hit the ground hard.

      The R&D is towards the guidance and landing system, the copter part is just a platform.

      When Curiosity landed, Skycrake used rocket engines, theres no reason why rockets couldnt be used instead of rotors.

  • by djupedal (584558)
    yet another landing concept?

    How many of these does the public have to fund before NASA admits to simply trying to stay employed, for cripe's sake.
    • by Nutria (679911)

      How many of these does the public have to fund before NASA admits

      For how many years do you have to go back to school before you understand that ESA != NASA?

    • by TWX (665546)
      First, this isn't NASA or the United States at all. Second, there well could be applications for differing landing systems for different applications, both for from-orbit landings and for terrain-to-terrain hops to traverse large amounts of territory or to bypass obstructions or other impassable terrain.

      If the ESA will pay for it then I don't really care that much. The idea sounds a little silly given the atmospheric density on Mars, but if they can make something work or can learn and use this knowled
  • Why not just leave the quadcopter attached to the rover as a single unit? You then would have a rover capable of short hops to move from point to point, over obstacles, etc.. It might also allow a stuck rover to move out of a sandtrap. It could also blow dust off solar arrays. It would provide a lot more flexibility in motion.

    The sky-crane maneuver was designed before the quadcopter design paradigm existed and they were simply trying to safely land a large and heavy science rover. The lower density of the a
    • by wagnerrp (1305589)
      The quadrotor design paradigm exists because small electric motors are cheap, and the power-to-weight ratios available in the couple pound range are absurd to the point that good engineering is unnecessary. In the couple thousand pound range, power becomes far more scarce, and the small, inefficient rotors just won't cut it. They have lowered the minimum barrier to entry for hobbyists, and research projects that need a simple airborne platform. They don't work well for full scale aircraft.
  • I hope they plan on deploying a dozen or more GPS satellites to Mars before they try and land this thing.

    • by TWX (665546)
      I think they should name them something besides GPS. Maybe Ares Positioning System so that it could just be called Ares.

      Though such a Roman->Greek naming scheme might not work so well for Venus...
      • What's wrong with Aphrodite?

        • by TWX (665546)
          Cumbersome. Zeus is short. Ares is short. Cronus is short. Even Posiedon is only three syllables, but Aphrodite at four is getting a little long and doesn't roll off the tongue the same way.
        • by dbIII (701233)

          What's wrong with Aphrodite?

          Doesn't work well with Apples.

  • by danomatika (1977210) on Monday July 07, 2014 @06:35PM (#47403541)

    StarTiger's Dropter

    What the hell kind of name is that? Is this Wing Commander?

  • by GPS Pilot (3683) on Monday July 07, 2014 @06:48PM (#47403615)

    If you've never watched "Seven Minutes of Terror," which explains the crazy but successful scheme to lower the Curiousity rover onto Mars, do yourself a favor and go here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v... [youtube.com]

    It's the best video the U.S. Government has ever produced.

    • Go watch the last minute of Apollo 11 if you want "terror". Aldrin's heart rate went through the roof while Armstrong's kept plodding along normally, which just goes to show it's more scary being the passenger than the driver.
    • by Tablizer (95088)

      An audit by the IRS?

  • Why can't it BE the rover?
    • Why can't it BE the rover?

      Fuel.

      The final system would use rocket engines. Mars's atmosphere is only 1% of Earth's, propellers wouldnt work so well.

  • by gman003 (1693318) on Monday July 07, 2014 @07:33PM (#47403887)

    Helicopters work well on Earth for several reasons - first, our oxygen-bearing atmosphere means we don't have to carry our own oxidizer, just fuel, which makes it far more mass-efficient. Then our thick atmosphere means you get a lot more lift for a given amount of airspeed.

    I have no doubt that you could get a rotorcraft to work on Mars. It's a question of whether it will work better than alternatives - such as the rockets used by Curiosity. But in essence this will have to be a rocket-powered rotorcraft as well - either rocket-like gas generators, or electric motors would be needed to work in the oxygenless environment, and I don't see electric being feasible in this situation. It then comes down to "is it more efficient to use the fuel+oxidizer to turn a rotor at supersonic speeds, or use it as a rocket?"

    I'm no rocket scientist, but it seems to me that the simple extra mass of the rotor is a big strike against it being a good alternative to rockets, never mind the thinner atmosphere.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    ... on completely missing the point. This project is about testing autonomous visual landing site selection and guidance, NOT proposing that quadcopters can fly on Mars. To be fair, the linked article isn't especially clear on that point either.

    • by stoploss (2842505)

      ... on completely missing the point. This project is about testing autonomous visual landing site selection and guidance, NOT proposing that quadcopters can fly on Mars. To be fair, the linked article isn't especially clear on that point either.

      To be fair, the ESA's own site [esa.int] insinuates that this project is a quadcopter for Mars.

      "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."

  • tell him he can have a 50 year exclusive getting DVDs and geegaws to martian settlers.
  • Martian air density says any sort of copter is not going to fly.

    The highest atmospheric density on Mars is equal to that found 35 km (22 mi) above the Earth's surface.

    • by dbIII (701233)
      Not any current conventional one just like conventional fixed wing aircraft can't get up to the same altitude as the U2. I think it's more impractical than impossible, although generating that much lift from huge rotors may require materials that we don't or may never have.
      Besides, this copter was just a platform for a vision system instead of a serious lander design.
  • To properly test a prototype, you would need to fly a prototype helicopter (probably with very large rotor and very powerful turbine) to 33,000 meters altitude on Earth to test equivalent atmospheric pressures. The current altitude record for helicopters is only 12,442 meters.

    There's another major problem posed by Mars. 96% of the atmosphere is comprised of CO2 and there is only trace amounts of oxygen. That means not only would you have to carry fuel, but you would need to carry your own oxidizer as
  • Oh man that's hilarious lol

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