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Apr 07, 2017 04:06 AM EDT

NASA To Send MERF Autonomous Drone To Fly Across Martian Surface [Video]

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ISS astronauts display how to construct a pizza in zero gravity

Think for just a moment what it would be like for NASA to explore more parts of the planet Mars other than using Orbiters and Rovers. Though both have been successful, thus far, engineers are looking for new ways to explore other parts of the red planet Orbiters and Rovers cannot reach.

NASA hatched a plan to employ an aerial vehicle to explore the planet surface sometime in the future and instigated the development of a drone, called the Mars Electric Reusable Flyer (MERF), capable of flight in a thin atmosphere that the Red Planet has. The MERF is capable of a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL), which extends its range of exploration opportunities.

The MERF is about an arm span across, with two movable propellers. It can hover or fly horizontally over the surface. According to ZDNet, it was a challenge in getting the drone to fly in conditions that are very different from that here on Earth.

Though Mars has a lower gravity than Earth, the Red Planet has 100 times less atmosphere. Therefore, it would be difficult for the craft to take off, as it would have thin air to push against. Pushing the envelope further, Langley researchers are developing visual odometry algorithms to enable the drone to navigate autonomously called Simultaneous Linearization and Mapping (SLAM).

Even with today's motor and battery technology making extended flight and ease of recharging possible, there would still be unknown factors that researchers will not find out until the drone itself makes it to Mars and attempt to fly. For now, MERF low-pressure chamber tests are underway at Langley.

An autonomous aerial vehicle would sure bring it many advantages in the exploration of Mars, though reliable, the slow-moving Rovers must remain on a relatively smooth surface with little obstacles. Meanwhile, plans are also underway to probably send out another possible addition to the Rover in PUFFER, an origami-inspired robot scout that can fold. It is touted to go where the rover cannot, on land.

It would sure be grand if NASA could make one Rover that has these two additional elements in one. The main Rover, the PUFFER, and the MERF. If they did, it would be more than just a game changer. One might even consider it a trifecta of design and engineering prowess.

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