Getting an exploratory rover the 140 million miles from Earth to Mars might seem like the hard part, but actually landing the craft without crashing it is a task unto itself. Luckily for the human race, the European Space Agency (ESA) has some extremely cool ideas on how to deliver the next one.
Though NASA has most recently used a massive “sky crane” structure to land the agency’s latest rover crafts on Mars, the ESA is tinkering with something a lot smaller and cooler — quadcopter drones.
Dubbed the “Dropter Project,” the ESA is testing plans to essentially use a specially equipped quadcopter as a delivery mechanism to carry a rover to the Martian surface and land it once it spots a suitably safe area. The part they’re figuring out now? How to make the copter autonomous and stable enough to land on its own, since the communication lag would make it impossible for a pilot to guide it in there.
The current plan calls for the craft to use GPS and inertia control to track its way to a predetermined suitable deployment zone. From there, the dropship switches to a vision-based navigation system, using lasers and barometers to determine the safest spot to lower the rover down to the surface.
The project is still in its early stages, as they would still need to determine what effect the Martian atmosphere would have on the flight, but it's still an extremely cool concept. To get a peek at the "Dropter" in action, check out some testing footage below and let us know what you think: