Final grounding for Ingenuity?

February 21, 2024  - By
NASA’s Ingenuity took this picture on Jan. 18, 2024. The sand-dune, rock-less area where Ingenuity last showing the shadow of its damaged rotor blade. (Image: NASA)

NASA’s Ingenuity took this picture on Jan. 18, 2024. The sand-dune, rock-less area where Ingenuity last
showing the shadow of its damaged rotor blade. (Image: NASA)

It appears that the little extraterrestrial drone that could has come a cropper on Mars and now will not be flying again – it is permanently grounded. The Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) crew managing Ingenuity was running a regular scouting trip over a featureless sand-dune area on Dec. 22, 2023. Suddenly, the UAV’s visual navigation system malfunctioned, which led to a hard emergency landing.

When the autonomous navigation system did not have any landmarks to match its digital reference map, it reverted to an emergency landing. Maybe the poor guy should have had a few moments to gather its airborne wits and to come down softly, but alas at the same time the connection with the rover was lost, he dove for cover and broke a chunk off at least one of the counter-rotating blades. This now apparently prevents further take-offs. Mars’ atmosphere is only 1% as dense as Earth’s, so those rotors need all their designed lift capabilities to grab enough ‘air’ and get the 4 lb helicopter airborne. The flight control system may be unable to cope with the resulting compromised lift profile. Either way Ingenuity’s flying days are over, according to NASA.

Conceptual design for the Sample Recovery Helicopters (Image: Aerovironment/ NASA/ JPL)

Conceptual design for the Sample Recovery Helicopters
(Image: Aerovironment/ NASA/ JPL)

Ingenuity completed 72 flights over the course of three years, surpassing its original 30-day mission to prove the possibility of a miniature, autonomous helicopter flight on Mars. After its initial four flights, NASA and JPL chose the UAV to scout out safe paths for the Perseverance rover from an airborne perspective.

All is not lost for Ingenuity, however. AeroVironment, the UAV manufacturer that co-developed Ingenuity with NASA/JPL, has been awarded another contract to design and develop two prototype ‘sample-return’ helicopters for NASA’s next major Mars expedition.

Building on Ingenuity’s design, the new UAV will have wheels and a grappling contraption to pick up sample tubes, which could assist in the Mars sample recovery mission. Perseverance is currently expected to be the lead in transferring cached sample tubes to the new Sample Retrieval Lander for return to Earth, but the new helicopters provide a different backup option on Mars for pick-up and transport of the tubes.

Back here on Earth, the latest tragic news from the Middle East — the UAV attack on the US Tower 22 military outpost in Jordan which cost three soldiers their lives and injured at least 34 others — appears to have been due to a lack of defensive capability. Earlier news releases indicated that the kamikaze UAV had arrived at the same time as the expected return of a U.S. UAV from the base, implying that defenses may have been taken down temporarily. It now seems that there was little active defense to prevent the attack.

The attacking UAV reportedly came in very low, and the base was unable to track its approach. The base is said to have defensive signal jamming capabilities, but without radar visibility of the UAV and knowing an attack was in progress, the jammers may have been ineffective or inactive.

Tower 22 was thought of as a low-risk-of-attack U.S. base, perhaps supporting another U.S. base in Syria with logistics, so no active drone suppression system had been provisioned. This assessment, and those for similar bases in the area and around the world, may perhaps have to be revised and sufficient active defenses may need to be installed.

While U.S. and Ukrainian forces deal with attacking drones, Iran has unveiled its latest addition to its arsenal of one-way killer unmanned aircraft.

Image: Iranian Military Media

Image: Iranian Military Media

Iran displayed the Shahed-238 in public in November 2023, so there may have already been enough time to get some of these very fast-flying vehicles through the manufacturing process and begin deliveries to Russia and Iranian proxy agents. The advantage of jet-power is of course significant speed over propeller-driven variants, while the range may be significantly less for the same fuel capacity. The disadvantage for the United States and Ukraine is that most fielded conventional UAV detection radars have difficulty seeing fast targets in time to activate and aim defensive weapons.

The situation for Ukraine and the United States in the Middle East appears to be worsening as large numbers of Iranian-supplied and locally manufactured kamikaze UAVs are pumped into the war zone and ‘hot spots’ in the Middle East.

It is sad that Mars aerial views may be limited as Ingenuity seems to be permanently grounded, and the Middle East doesn’t sound too safe to be hanging around in either! Further escalation of prices might be expected, too, as a good part of the volume of cargo ships settle into sailing around Africa. Let’s look for better news in the coming months.

About the Author: Tony Murfin

Tony Murfin is managing consultant for GNSS Aerospace LLC, Florida. Murfin provides business development consulting services to companies involved in GNSS products and markets, and writes for GPS World as the OEM Professional contributing editor. Previously, Murfin worked for NovAtel Inc. in Calgary, Canada, as vice president of Business Development; for CMC Electronics in Montreal, Canada, as business development manager, product manager, software manger and software engineer; for CAE in Montreal as simulation software engineer; and for BAe in Warton, UK, as senior avionics engineer. Murfin has a B.Sc. from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in the UK, and is a UK Chartered Engineer (CEng MIET).