IIT alumnus develop chopper that will fly over Martian skies
New Delhi : An alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology Bob Balaram has developed a space chopper that is capable of flying over the Martian skies.
The chopper will be sent to the Mars this summer with NASA's Perseverance rover. The chopper has been parked at at Kennedy Space Center waiting to hitch a ride to the Red Planet this summer.
Balaram got an idea of making a helicopter from his one of the professional conferences he had attended in 1990s, where Stanford professor Ilan Kroo spoke about a "mesicopter," a miniature airborne vehicle for Earth applications that was funded as a NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts proposal.
He pitched the idea of using one on Mars in a joint proposal with Stanford for a NASA Research Announcement submission and recruited AeroVironment, a small company in Simi Valley, California.
Amid favourable reviews, the project got green signal only after 15 years.
Charles Elachi, then director of JPL, attended a conference where the University of Pennsylvania presented about the use of drones and helicopters. When he returned to JPL, he asked whether something like this could be used on Mars.
A colleague of Balaram's mentioned his previous work in that area of research. Balaram dusted off that proposal, and Elachi asked him to write a new one for the competitive call for Mars 2020 investigation payloads. They then created a new proposal and interestingly, the idea was not selected as an instrument, it was funded for technology development and risk reduction.
Mimi Aung became Mars Helicopter project manager, and after the team worked on risk reduction, NASA decided to fund the helicopter for flight as a technology demonstration.
The bigger challenge for the helicopter was that it could carry only a few kilograms, including the weight of batteries and a radio for communications.
"You can't just throw mass at it, because it needed to fly," said Balaram.
It dawned on Balaram that it was like building a new kind of aircraft that just happens to be a spacecraft. And because it is a "passenger" on a flagship mission, he said, "we have to guarantee 100% that it will be safe."
The end result was a four-pound (1.8-kilogram) helicopter with two pairs of light counter-rotating blades -- an upper and lower pair, to slice through the Martian atmosphere. Each pair of blades spans four feet (1.2 meters) in diameter.
Amid deficiency of Mars-like climate on Earth, the helicopter was tested in vaccum chamber and the 25-foot Space Simulation Chamber at JPL.
"Bob is the inventor of our Mars Helicopter. He innovated the design and followed up on that vision to its fruition as chief engineer through all phases of design, development and test," said project manager Aung.
"Whenever we encountered a technical roadblock -- and we encountered many roadblocks -- we always turned to Bob, who always carries an inexhaustible set of potential solutions to be considered. Come to think of it, I don't think I have ever seen Bob feeling stuck at any point!" Aug added.