One of the limitations of Mars rovers is that once they land on the Red Planet, they can only work and navigate on the ground. What they can potentially see is limited by the height of their cameras. Tall terrains can likewise be an obstacle that can prevent the rovers' eye from seeing what lies ahead.
Such hindrances have prompted the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to mull on using drones on planet Mars, and a low-flying scout appears to provide a number of benefits if it is fitted as an add-on to future rovers that will be sent to study and gather data from Mars.
For one, incorporating a Mars Helicopter into rovers in the future may possibly increase by up to three times the distance that these vehicles drive in a day. It could also make it possible to bring a new level of visual information for choosing which particular sites to explore.
"So why would we want to put a helicopter on Mars?" Mike Meacham from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory asked. "If I'm the rover right now, I can't really see the terrain behind me. But if I had a helicopter with a camera on it, all of a sudden, I can see a whole lot more."
The drone will likely often fly ahead of the rover to check out potential points of interests and help researchers on Earth plan for the best driving route. It can also be used to search for features that the rover can study in detail.
Scientists envision the Mars Helicopter to weigh 2.2 pounds and measure 3.6 feet. A proof of concept prototype that resembles a medium-sized cubic tissue box has already been tested inside a vacuum chamber at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to simulate the distinct characteristics of the Martian atmosphere.
If such a helicopter will indeed make it to the Red Planet, it will likely be powered up using a solar panel. In order to gain traction in Mars' atmosphere, which is a hundred times thinner compared with that of the Earth's, the drone will also be designed so its rotors spin much faster. This will provide it with substantial lift. It may also be designed so it can fly up to three minutes daily during which it can travel up to a third of a mile.
The U.S. space agency is set to send another rover to planet Mars in 2020.