rover quad copter
August 3, 2015

NASA’s new quad-copter vehicle acts as buddy for rovers

NASA engineers are developing a quad-copter-like vehicle that would be used with off-world rovers to map terrain ahead of those machines and collect samples from otherwise inaccessible places.

The Extreme Access Flyer system, affectionately called the “little flying buddy” by Space.com, is being created by engineers at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and would be an airborne robotic vehicle designed to operate on planets with little to no atmosphere.

Rob Mueller, senior technologist for advanced projects at NASA’s Swamp Works team, called it “a prospecting robot” that will be used to find resources in “hard-to-access areas” (such as regions where there is permanent shadow or crater walls too steep for a rover to climb).

Mueller’s team is designing the Extreme Access Flyers to use a lander as a base to replenish its batteries and propellants between flights, using fuel created from resources found on the worlds they explore. They would be small enough for several to accompany a lander on its mission, and could perform hundreds of explorative flights during each mission.

Plans call for autonomous, cold-gas powered mini-UAVs

Compared to Earth-based quad-copters, the Extreme Access Flyers would have far larger rotors to deal with the atmospheric differences of Mars, the moon, or asteroids. They would also need to operate autonomously, due to communication delays, and without the assistance of a GPS.

Lifting and maneuvering duties typically performed by rotors would require cold-gas jets using oxygen or steam water vapor. Also, the team is planning to program the flyer to recognize the terrain and landmarks so that it can navigate, guiding itself to specific areas based on instructions sent by Earth-based controllers or scouting for sample-collection sites on its own.

When it comes to collecting samples, the Swamp Works team is planning to devise a modular approach, allowing the quad-copters to carry one tool at a time to a site and collect about seven grams of material at a time. That should be sufficient for a lander to use its instruments to analyze the samples, and over the course of several flights, would be enough to paint a complete picture of a geological area for scientists on the ground.

Using flight control systems inspired by those of commercially available small, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), they have successfully assembled several models designed to test various parts of the final machines. The prototype they envision will be about five feet across and use ducted fans. Testing is currently underway at the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility.

(Image credit: NASA)