Engineers at NASA’s Langley Research Center are currently flight testing an autonomous VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft designed to explore hard-to-reach areas on the planet Mars. The end goal is to discover sites ideal for human habitation on Mars using high-tech drones. Called the “Mars Electric Flyer” project, NASA is already putting its VTOL prototype through low-pressure chamber tests in anticipation of the red planet’s notoriously thin atmosphere.

The Mars Electric Flyer Project

NASA’s robotic aerial vehicle will certainly have its work cut out for itself. The Mars Flyer will be flown into the deepest canyons and most volatile lava tubes in the hopes of discovering livable environments beneath the planet’s surface. This super tough drone will be equipped with state-of-the-art mapping and remote sensor technology due to its long journey battling unpredictable atmospheric conditions. NASA will have to arm its Mars flyer with a battery capacity far beyond even the most impressive consumer technology drones currently on the market. The 30 minute flight time won’t cut it when facing Mars’ “thin Martian atmosphere.”

With the help of NASA’s strategically-placed ground rovers, the electric powered Mars Flyer will set out on its surveillance journey and then return for recharging. According to a recent RT news article, “the rover will use a robotic arm to release the drone on the surface of the planet.” From there, NASA autonomous aircraft can start exploring the nooks and crannies of Mars. Still, in its prototype phase, NASA hopes its low-pressure chamber flight tests catapult the project to the implementation phase.

The Perfect VTOL for Mars

On the heels of iReviews’ 2017 Best Drone comparison, we have decided to help NASA out by creating our own version of the Mars Flyer using only the most disruptive technology featured on our five featured drones. Taking into consideration Mars’ volatile atmospheric conditions, the collaboration with ground-based rovers, and the long-range mission requirement, we have put together the ultimate VTOL space drone.

Mars’ thin atmosphere made us think using a quadcopter propeller system may not be the best idea, especially considering the need for high-performance maneuverability in confined canyons or tight lava tubes. So we opted to use the Parrot Disco FPV foldable winged frame instead of dealing with propulsion from independent propellers. The Parrot Disco also reaches a max speed of 50 mph, which the fastest amongst the top drones of 2017. Capable of 45 minutes of continuous flight time, Parrot Disco’s battery capacity is also perfect for ensuring a safe return to the ground rovers for recharging.

Drone Sensor Technology

With that being said, the Parrot Disco FPV does not come with a built-in thermal sensor system. Designed for high-level aerial photography and cinematography, the DJI Phantom 4 comes with a 4K resolution/30 fps thermal HD camera mounted on a 3-axis gimbal. Equipped with the latest image stabilization technology, the Phantom 4 can capture crystal clear thermal shots inside Mars’ lava tubes without experiencing the shaky image caused by thin atmospheric pressure.

Finally, NASA would be well served to incorporate the Yuneec Tycoon Q500 Quadcopter flight mode technology into its navigational software. Backed by GPS and GLONASS, the Tycoon offers four distinct flight modes for drone pilots: Smart, Follow Me, Watch Me, and Home. Since the drone needs recharging at the end of its arduous mission, the Q500’s Return-to-Home and Follow Me modes can safely return the VTOL to its rover – even if the rover is out exploring on its own. It will know where its home-base is at all times.