Thursday, July 28, 2022

Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Wins Aviation Collier Trophy

The story got past me when it was first announced because it was in Machine Design and not one of the space news sites I regularly cruise, but in mid June, the team that developed the Ingenuity helicopter that flew to Mars with the Perseverance rover was awarded the prestigious Collier Trophy from the National Aeronautic Association.  The award, of course, is for being the first vehicle to fly on another planet.  For more than a century, the Collier Trophy has been awarded annually to mark the major achievements in aviation. 

The helicopter was developed by a team of engineers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), AeroVironment, and maxon.

The helicopter was built by AeroVironment, a company that specializes in unmanned air vehicles, under contract from JPL. Maxon provided six precision DC motors, each with a diameter of only 10 mm; they move the swashplates on the rotors. Swashplates, which are found on all helicopters, adjust the angle of the rotor blades and control the helicopter’s flightpath. The Perseverance rover, the spacecraft that carried the helicopter to the surface of Mars, also relies on maxon motors to collect and store soil samples that will be retrieved from Mars on a future NASA mission.

As we've been talking about since the first mention of the helicopter, flying on Mars isn't like flying on Earth. While Ingenuity never flew more than 40 feet above the surface, that's equivalent to nearly 100,000 feet altitude on Earth and one doesn't see helicopters up there.  This means the helicopter had to be extremely light, and it weighs in at just under 4 lb.  The weight limitations meant the solar-charged batteries and maxon DC motors also had to be light and highly energy efficient.   A measure of the success of the mission is that it started out as an experiment to answer if can we make something that can fly on Mars and do something useful.  The initial goal was five test flights.  They've flown 27.  It has been so successful, the idea of using a helicopter is moving into problem solving on other missions.  

The motors strike me as the "stars of the show" since they're driving the propellers, and a more recent article says those motors are 10mm in diameter and 20mm long.  That's a bit bigger than 3/8" diameter by 3/4" long - bigger in both directions.  Machine Design has a separate article on the motor development, in an interview between one of their editors, Rehana Begg, and Florbela Costa, the project manager for the development of the motors.   The video interview is 16 minutes long, and the discussion is worth listening to, although not very detailed about the engineering.  I'm pretty sure maxon would consider much of that proprietary.  It drifts into more of an interview with Ms. Costa about her background and the job position after the 10 minute mark.

Florbela Costa holding up an equivalent motor to the ones powering Ingenuity.  Screen capture from the video on Machine Design that I can't embed here.  Ms. Costa has a bit of a Portuguese accent, but I had no trouble understanding her. 


  1. The copter is like the visible light cameras on the Juno probe. A very lucky afterthought that has produced results far in excess of what was expected. All for a 'we have 3 extra kgs of mass unaccounted for and so what can we do with it?'

    And those motors... can you imaging the electric train set you can power with that? Actually have a 50+ car train with one engine.

  2. Don't forget that the Schiaparelli lander proved that landing on Mars was even harder.

    1. To borrow a line, "now that is a name I haven't heard in a long time." ("Old Ben" Kenobi in the first Star Wars)

    2. I guess it didn't have the impact they were expecting.

  3. -- The award, of course, is for being the first vehicle to fly on another planet. --

    Well, to be nitpickingly accurate, it celebrates the first vehicle to take off from and land on a planet other than Earth -- the same planet in each operation. (Eventually we'll have awards for vehicles that take off from a non-Earth planet and land on some other non-Earth planet, vehicles that take off from a non-Earth planet and land on Earth, and other "specialty" categories: rotary-wing, fixed-wing, ballistic, and so forth until we've used up all of Guinness!)

  4. Step by step, piece by piece, little by little, every day we have people contributing some small (no pun intended) advancement in Science and Technology, and look what we get!
    Amazing strides made by amazing people. One step becomes a whole new journey, sometimes!
    I'm amazed at the ingenuity of people. Smart people.