There is only so much Mars a rover can see from the ground. A drone scout could let the rover see further, so NASA’s working on a small flying robot copter for a future Mars mission. Drones are proving themselves cheap and versatile on Earth, so it’s natural to think they might be useful on Mars too. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory just released a video about their Mars Helicopter, designed to do just that.
The biggest challenge: while Martian gravity is less than that of Earth, Martian atmosphere is a lot thinner. A fixed-wing scout plane on Mars would have to go fast to generate the kind of lift needed to stay airborne, which in turn would likely require prohibitive amounts of fuel or battery power. Instead, NASA is looking at a copter, with two spinning rotors going 2400 rpm.
About the size of a tissue box, the copter would have a solar panel on top to power it every day, and then fly for just a few minutes and no further than a third of a mile at a time, cameras on board scanning the landscape to better plot the rovers’ next path before returning to land on the rover itself. If the scout works, and if it finds its way onto the next Mars rover, humanity may soon be exploring the red planet from the air–or what passes for air.