NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Showcases Future of Power Electronics in Space

May 11, 2021 by Alessandro Mascellino

In-flight rechargeable batteries and self-hated electronics in below freezing temperatures make the Ingenuity craft a host of many power electronics devices.

The Mars Helicopter, named Ingenuity, has been built to execute the first, test-powered, controlled flight on another world, and first reached Mars on the Perseverance rover. The rover successfully landed on the red planet on February 18 and soon reached a suitable location deemed suitable for Ingenuity to take flight.

The helicopter then started its 30-Martian-day experimental window on April 19th, taking off and climbing to roughly 10 feet (3 meters) above the ground.

It then briefly hovered in the air, performed a turn, and then landed, delivering the very first powered, controlled flight in Mars’ exceptionally thin atmosphere.

Following its initial flight, Ingenuity proceeded to perform additional experimental flights of longer distances and greater altitudes, until its tech demonstration was declared complete by NASA.


Ingenuity after releasing its blades on Mars’ surface. Imaged used courtesy of NASA.
Ingenuity after releasing its blades on Mars’ surface. Imaged used courtesy of NASA.


The next operations demonstration phase will now see Ingenuity and Perseverance jointly explore how future rovers and aerial explorers can collaborate to benefit future exploration of Mars and other worlds.


Space-designed Power electronics

Before the historic flights Ingenuity completed last month on Mars, the helicopter received a checkout and was recharged in space as it traveled on the Perseverance rover.

The trip from Earth lasted almost seven months, and Ingenuity needed to be charged mid-trip to be able to operate once it reached the red planet.

The first charging operation was performed last August and lasted eight hours. The team brought the helicopter’s charge level up to 35%, and  analyzed the performance of the rotorcraft's six lithium-ion batteries during the process. For context, the low charge state was deliberate, as various tests on Earth proved it would be optimal for battery health during the rover’s cruise to Mars.


The Perseverance rover ready to drop Ingenuity on the Martian surface. Image used courtesy of NASA.


From a technical standpoint, Ingenuity’s main processor is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801, quite similar to those found in smartphones up until a couple of years ago.

The processor was soldered to a credit-card-sized board and turned into a flight platform thanks to a Linux-based OS capable of handling inertial guidance and performing a wide range of tasks.

Since Mars is so far from Earth, joystick or real-time operation was not an option, so NASA programmed the Ingenuity with ground features tracking, to ‘teach’ the helicopter how to steer.

The team also loaded up a course and mission command in advance via Mars orbiters and the Perseverance rover, complete with high-resolution maps with rock features.

This allowed Ingenuity to compare that preloaded map location data with what it saw in real-time via its cameras, then make small adjustments to follow its course.


Tackling the Temperature

Other than for transportation purposes, Ingenuity needed to be connected to the Perseverance rover to have its battery charged, as well as its key component protected by the Martian cold.

The rover’s thermostat-controlled heater kept the interior at about 45 degrees Fahrenheit, even at night, when temperatures on Mars can drop to as low as -130F. 

Before starting its first flight, Perseverance charged Ingenuity’s battery to 100 percent, as after leaving the rover, the helicopter would have to run its own heater from its own battery.

To allow operation even after being detached from the rover, Ingenuity also features a high-tech solar panel.


A close-up of Ingenuity, taken by Perseverance’s zoomable cameras. Imaged used courtesy of NASA.


Given its relatively small battery, the helicopter can't afford to keep the temperature of its interior at 45F, however, as that would take too much energy.

To solve this issue, when it gets activated on the surface after being dropped, Ingenuity sets its thermostat to about 5F or lower. By doing so, it is capable of protecting its core components and surviving the Martian night.

For more information about Ingenuity, you can follow this link here