NASA eyes using small helicopters to help Mars rovers

Mars might very soon have its own version of a drone to patrol its skies. NASA is considering creating a Mars Helicopter, an addon to future rovers that will become the advance party of these roaming laboratories. These vehicles will become the eyes of scientists on earth that will help them better determine where to direct rovers to, making each trip more efficient and focusing primarily on more "exciting" parts of Martian landscape, increasing the distance traveled up to three times.

For all the wealth of information Martian rovers have gathered for NASA, its journeys are not exactly the most efficient use of its time. The rover's "eyes" are limited to the feed from its on-board cameras. Satellites orbiting the planet give a very distant overhead view, but those just aren't enough to help NASA scientists plot out a better course.

The Mars Helicopter will try to bridge the gap between these two visions. It will fly ahead of the rover each day and survey the land ahead. It will determine possible points of interest and its input will help scientists decide where to guide the rover to. It will also have other functions designed to supplement the rover, like determining where to best pick up rock samples which the rover will collect the next day.

The Mars Helicopter will not supplant a rover but will instead become an addon to the next generation of Mars rovers. The final vehicle is planned to weigh only 2.2 lbs (1 kg) and span 3.6 feet (1.1 m) from one blade tip to another. Don't expect it yet to look like the fancy drones we have on Earth today. The current prototype is best described as a tissue box with propellers.