Although Ingenuity’s first flight has been dubbed a “Wright Brothers moment on another planet,” the site of the first flight is now called the “Wright Brothers Landing Field,” and Ingenuity even carries a strip of the muslin fabric used to wrap the wings of the Wright Brothers’ 1903 plane, Ingenuity is not a plane—and it cannot be flown by a human. Because it takes anywhere from five to 20 minutes for a radio signal from Earth to reach Mars, Ingenuity must use fully autonomous flight systems and operate without sensors like lidar used by helicopters on Earth and some NASA spacecraft. A single downward-facing camera helps Ingenuity determine position, velocity, and altitude.
Improvements to these systems could be transferred during the helicopter’s winter downtime. “If Ingenuity is able to continue operations later this year, after getting through the Martian winter, the team is currently considering several flight system upgrades that would increase system robustness and/or improve the navigation capabilities of the helicopter,” Lavery wrote in an email to WIRED.
For example, Lavery says NASA will test its autonomous hazard avoidance system for known areas. Conditions for the helicopter’s initial flights on Mars were relatively harmless, but the utility of active hazard avoidance AI is increasing as the helicopter attempts to land in areas with more potential obstacles. Lavery says these systems were developed together with Ingenuity’s initial flight system, but not as part of the version launched from Cape Canaveral in 2020.
Last month, JPL researchers who helped create autonomous flight systems for the Mars helicopter shared advances in AI for predicting the best place to land in an unknown area during an emergency. These kinds of emergency landing systems will play a role on future NASA missions like Dragonfly, a 2027 mission to send a quadcopter to Titan, the moon of Saturn.
Like Ingenuity, the Saturn drone, which arrives in 2035, will take flight millions of miles from Earth, and must operate without human assistance. Unlike Ingenuity, which hitched a ride to Mars under the belly of Perseverance, Dragonfly will take flight a little over an hour after reaching Titan, detaching from a parachute and aeroshell for midair flight to start a two-year, nuclear-powered mission to search for life.
Lessons learned from Ingenuity may also help plan future missions to Mars. NASA Ames Research Center and JPL started work on a second-generation helicopter two years before the first reached the Red Planet. Lavery compares Ingenuity to Sojourner, the first rover sent to Mars, which landed in 1997. Virtually every surface mission since then has carried a rover. “We’re hoping that Ingenuity will do a similar sort of thing, that this will become a standard part of the mission toolkit,” he says.
NASA’s ROAMX project is designing improvements to be incorporated into the next helicopter, like changes to the rotor blades that reduce drag and could enable it to carry a scientific payload that weighs about 2 pounds a distance of about 4 miles. In a presentation about future flights to Mars, last year NASA principal investigator Haley Cummings said rotor blade refinements uncovered by ROAMX will be incorporated into the Mars Science Helicopter, a 66-pound hexacopter with six rotors that could lose a rotor but continue to operate. The conceptual drone was first proposed in a white paper published in early 2021.
Experimental flying craft for Mars have been under development for more than two decades. They include a helicopter shaped like a lampshade, swarms of small drones, a glider launched with a weather balloon, and tilted-rotor machines that switch between flying like a helicopter or a plane. Future concepts may explore areas that rovers can’t reach, and may eventually ferry tools and supplies for people on Mars.
Ames Research Center scientists envision automated base stations, little aircraft hangars in the shape of clamshells, to shield flying machines from cold and dust to extend their lives for years. Extending the life of drones could expand their use beyond a single mission, allowing them to become part of a network of machines, big and small, that could do tasks like explore lava tubes, volcanoes, or ice caps. The development of forms of fully autonomous flight could also have applications for commercial drones or flight systems on Earth. Today, drones typically use GPS and a return-to-home function in the event of an emergency or loss of power.
Lavery believes Ingenuity’s most important mission was achieved during that first flight in April 2021. That 39-second flight proved that people are capable of applying the principles of aerodynamics for powered flight on another planet. “Every flight since then, and all the data we’re collecting with each successive flight, helps us refine that knowledge even more,” Lavery says.
At best, the first four flights traveled no further than a few hundred feet and lasted roughly a minute. By the fifth flight, Ingenuity began to venture out, eventually flying more than 4 miles. Then Ingenuity began to assist in the mission of exploring Martian geology and searching for possible forms of life. At the request of the Perseverance Mars rover science team, Ingenuity took high-definition photos of the Fortun ridgeline rocks at the bottom of the Jezero Crater, which are thought to be of volcanic origin. And Ingenuity also flew over part of the Séítah region, delivering imagery and information the rover Perseverance is unable to reach that “just would not have been possible to capture had the helicopter not been there,” Lavery says.
In April, flying at a speed of 12 miles per hour, Ingenuity flew more than 2,300 feet in a jaunt that lasted more than two minutes, making it the longest and fastest powered flight on another planet. Later that month, Ingenuity got a photo of the parachute and aeroshell used to bring Ingenuity and the Perseverance rover to the surface of Mars, images NASA wants to use to ensure safer landings for future spacecraft.
Lavery says Ingenuity’s first winter will be a challenge the team never expected to encounter—but now that they’ve shown that it’s possible to fly a helicopter on Mars, there’s potential to make flying companions a commodity for future missions to explore other celestial objects. “We haven’t made a decision yet on exactly what the next one will be,” says Lavery. “But the one thing I do feel fairly confident about is there will be a next one.”
This story originally appeared on wired.com.