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The first onboard vision system used in a lander for planetary exploration was the Descent Image Motion Estimation System (DIMES) developed at JPL for the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) landings in January of 2004. DIMES used monocular imagery, radar altimetry, and an IMU to estimate the horizontal velocity of the descent system in the last 2 kilometers of descent. The horizontal velocity estimates were used in retrorocket firing logic to reduce horizontal velocity before the airbag impact on the ground. Research since then has focused on using descent imagery for terrain relative navigation (TRN), as an input to precision landing, as well as on landing hazard detection with lidar and other sensors. The Mars 2020 rover mission (M2020) plans to use TRN to target landing at locations that are identified as hazard-free by analysis of orbital reconnaissance imagery prior to arrival at Mars. M2020 will also plans to include a technology demonstration of a 2 kg autonomous rotorcraft, the first ever to fly on another planet. Research is in progress to generalize these capabilities to other planetary bodies besides Mars. Some of these bodies have far different environments, such as dense, hazy atmospheres, which necessitate significantly different technical approaches. This talk will give an overview of the progress to date in this area and challenges for future applications to bodies like Mars, Europa, Titan, and Venus.
Since 2013, JPL has been developing a solar-powered, counter-rotating coaxial helicopter with mass of ~ 2 kg for operation on Mars, initially inspired by the possibility of using such a system as a scout for Mars rovers. The first space flight test of rotorcraft on Mars is now planned as the Mars Helicopter Technology Demonstrator (MHTD) vehicle slated to fly as part of the 2020 Mars rover mission. This talk will start with a short survey of the history of work that led to the MHTD concept, including prior work on fixed and rotary wing aircraft for planetary exploration and on work in the past decade on small, autonomous quadcopters for Earth applications that more directly inspired MHTD. The main part of the talk will describe key elements of the design, development, and testing of MHTD and goals for the validation flight. I will close with a brief look at future prospects for rotorcraft for Mars and Titan.