After talking with Jake Robins from the WeMartians Podcast to discuss the Mars 2020 mission, the idea of drones on other planets really caught our imagination and attention.
Therefore, we spoke to Cristian B. Meza, who is a citizen scientist, and professional drone operator about his thoughts on how drones could be of use on Mars.
CosmosPNW: What scientific applications make a drone most useful on Earth and potentially Mars?
Christian: Drones are amazingly helpful at gathering data from sources that have gaps. A great example is hurricane example provided. Examples include using NOAA to track storms, and have opportunities to use technologies for growth for scientific data.
As this wealth of uses of large drones has increased, it has meant that there are more resources available to drone operators. Therefore, there are always new ways for drones to be operated allowing for more gaps to be filled. These gaps have meant more opportunities for the entire drone community to expand the available flight patterns.
Currently, the work that would be most useful for drones on Mars include low level flights and photographic work. Without other flying objects flying in the Martian atmosphere, the entire planet is available for drones. Future work could include delivery mechanisms for bases and different existing rovers. To operate effectively, drones would require autonomy, as the time taken for sending data from Earth would be a challenge for controlling the drones. Autonomous Drone use is the future of drones on Mars until humans colonize the planet.
Insight: Automation is the future, regardless of industry. Whether it be self-driving cars, see Tesla, or autonomous robots to work at automobile factories, providing an automated drone will help open up more avenues of drone use on Mars and other celestial bodies. Maybe there is a use case for drones on planets such as Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, or other planets. There is a great opportunity to use drones to help serve as probes for planetary discovery and as the use of drones expand on Earth, there are additional use cases that can be extended to Mars.
CosmosPNW: What would be the hardest thing to upkeep about a drone if used in a remote location? Are there ay advancements in this area of technology that could assist?
Christian: What is important to understand is that the are theoretically be lots of complications when it comes to operating drones. Even when one is operating a drone in close proximity, drones are easy to break, and a great example on this is the role of drones as a toy. There are many low cost toys that are available to the public, such as parents and interested hobbyists, that are common to destroy, and one of the easiest to destroy tools on the market. This is only compounded by remote operation which means that remote operators have to deal with numerous factors such as lagtime between communication, recharging, and spare parts. Another consideration is that if not operated within specific temperates or pressures, the drones will explore.
Advancements in drone design means that it has become easier to develop spare parts as drone manufacturers can now identify replacement parts that can be 3D printed quickly using thin materials. These thin materials can be used to 3D print replacement parts for those with 3D printers on a worldwide scale. However, finding which materials to use and how to get these configured will be a challenge if they are to be used for future drone use.
Although battery design and increases in lifespan have been made in recent years and are actively being investigated, there is a bigger challenge when it comes to smaller drones. These smaller drones that can be easily printed and made suffer from the issue of more compact designs not lasting as long. This will need to be researched going forward.
Insight: Batteries will continue to evolve and hopefully when drones are widespread on foreign bodies, such as the Moon or Mars, they will evolve into a longer and more compact system. But this field will continue to evolve. Astronauts or some sort of robot will be required to change batteries and replace parts on drones when required, which is another aspect to consider, in terms of how to change batteries or fix parts.
CosmosPNW: What qualities make a good drone for scientific purposes?
Christian: Drones are low cost, easily replaceable, and can serve in roles where there are gaps between satellites and rovers. An example is the LCROSS which had a mission to eject moon data. A good drone can be integrated into launch services and support currently mission profiles and provide valuable scientific data.
Insight: As the LCROSS mission showed, that NASA can use and integrate drones in many different roles for NASA missions. Since the LCROSS mission in 2009, the use cases for drones in civilian life on Earth and the size of the drone industry has exploded in grown exponentially. There is still large exponential growth in the drone industry as a whole, which means more breakthroughs and more use cases for drones in all areas of life. Therefore, there are more opportunities for tailor drones for scientific purposes going forward.
CosmosPNW: If designing a drone for scientific purposes on Mars, what considerations would one have to account for?
Christian: For an environment such as Mars, a key design consideration is the powerful dust storms. With the way that drones are designed, storms could cause drones to drift off course and any debris in the air could cause problems for the drone it stay in the air. Debris could knock the drones out of the air or clog the parts that cause the drone to fly. This is important as designing drones for Mars requires contending with very strong Martian dust storms, which can cause serious issues for Martian drones. These drones will need to be able to survive the radiation and storms in addition to the dust storms in ways that rovers and satellites do not. Drones are notorious for being blown out of the sky when there are minimal hazardous conditions, which means that the dust storms are a major threat. To combat these dust storms, I would design a drone that would be able to almost instantaneous grounding mechanism that allows for the drone to ground quickly without damaging the drone itself. Moreover, I would consider implementing a coverage mechanism to protect the insides of the drone from the dust. Some sort of shielding mechanism that can be deployed reliably and quickly will allow the drone to remain viable during and after dust storms.
Insight: Every new environment will bring their own challenges for the operation and survivability of drones, which for drones on Mars will be dust storms. Dust storms will be a serious threat, and how one deals with safely landing and protecting a drone on Mars will determine how long each one can remain viable on the Martian surface. The last thing an operator wants is for their design to not be able to serve its purpose, which is important to helping collect import scientific data. These design challenges that designers face when designing a drone for celestial planets such as Mars will differ based upon the celestial body. However, the design and creation process for their use Mars can help tailor the process for future drones on Mars, Venus, and beyond.
Stay tuned to more Mars news as CosmosPNW as we will be closely following the new sciences and happenings on the red planet!