Ingenuity sets record for shortest flight on Mars

The helicopter NASA’s Ingenuity Mars recently completed a “short but significant” flight that lasted just 18 seconds, 13 seconds shorter than its debut flight to the red planet in April 2021.

Despite the brief nature of the flight, the success of the short hover at just 16 feet above the ground tested two important new capabilities for the helicopter: hazard avoidance upon landing and the use of digital elevation maps to aid navigation.

“Ingenuity was developed as a technology demonstration and designed to operate on Mars on flat, smooth terrain,” explained Joshua Anderson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is overseeing the mission. in a post about the most recent flight of the aircraft.

The JPL team member said that as Ingenuity continued its explorations of Jezero Crater alongside NASA’s Perseverance rover, both vehicles encountered increasingly challenging terrain beyond what the team had been expecting.

New hazard avoidance software allows the helicopter to use its downward-facing navigation camera to identify the safest visible landing site, allowing it to land safely among rockier terrain than before, which means more potential landing sites for the tiny drone-like machine.

“In previous flights, Ingenuity pilots have needed to find airfields clear of rocks or other obstacles that could damage the vehicle upon landing,” Anderson said. “Jezero crater is a rocky place, so safe airfields have been hard to find.”

The digital elevation maps will also help eliminate a problem where mountainous terrain causes turning problems for the helicopter, since its navigation software had only been designed to handle flat terrain.

“This new software update corrects this assumption of flat terrain by using digital elevation maps of Jezero Crater to help navigation software distinguish between changes in terrain and vehicle motion,” Anderson said. “This increases Ingenuity’s accuracy, allowing pilots to target smaller airfields in the future.”

The team will now use the results of Ingenuity’s short, simple flight to begin more advanced testing of the new capabilities to confirm that they are working as designed.

Anderson said the upgrade makes the aircraft “a much more capable vehicle and effective scout for Perseverance,” adding, “We’re all excited to see where this upgrade will allow us to take Ingenuity’s journey next.”

Ingenuity’s shortest flight took place on November 23 and was the aircraft’s 34th to date. Its longest flight so far lasted 169.5 seconds during a mission in August 2021.

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