Aerospace & Defence

Mars Ingenuity completes flight with DC motors

21st April 2021
Alex Lynn

Space fans are thrilled: NASA's Ingenuity helicopter has successfully completed its pioneering flight on Mars. This is the first time in the history of powered, unmanned spaceflight that a device has flown in a controlled manner on another planet – partly thanks to DC motors that have been modified for this challenge. 

A short flight for ‘Ingenuity’, a big success for unmanned space flight. NASA's Mars helicopter flew over the surface of the Red Planet for about 40 seconds on Monday, April 19th, and landed back on four legs. From NASA’s perspective, this is a historic event that can be classified similarly to the Wright brothers' first controlled flight in 1903.

With the Mars helicopter, the concept of powered, unmanned, and autonomous flights on foreign planets is being tested. This is comparable to the first Mars rover ‘Sojourner’, which paved the way for scientific follow-up missions such as ‘Curiosity’ and currently ‘Perseverance’. ‘Ingenuity’ is about to complete several flight units over a period of 30 days, lasting up to 90 seconds and bringing it to a maximum altitude of five meters.

Six micromotors control the helicopter's flight direction

The flight is also a great success for the drive specialist maxon. After all, the helicopter is equipped with six brushed DC motors from Switzerland, which have been specifically modified for this challenge. The DCX series of drives, with diameters of ten millimetres, control the pitch of the rotor blades and therefore the course of the helicopter, which weighs only 1.8 kilograms and is solar-powered.

The lightweight design is a prerequisite for a successful flight on the Red Planet, where there is hardly any atmosphere, making conditions similar to those at an altitude of 30 kilometers on Earth.

"The biggest challenge in developing the motors was the extreme weight requirement," said Aiko Stenzel, Design Engineer at maxon. "Every tenth of a gram had to be saved to make the helicopter fly. What's great is that despite the weight savings, we found a drive solution that has enough power to adjust the rotor blades. And this in the face of high vibrations and temperature fluctuations."

The standard variants of the DCX motors are available for everyone and can be configured online according to the individual wishes of customers.

Eugen Elmiger, CEO of the maxon Group, watched the NASA transmission of the first flight data live and said: "It is a fantastic feeling to know that our precision drives worked as planned and that we were able to make our contribution to this historic event. I am proud of our employees and look forward to the next milestones on Mars."

maxon's drives are also used in the Perseverance rover, on the underside of which the helicopter landed on Mars on February 18th, 2021. These are ten BLDC motors and a special gearbox that will be used, among other things, to handle the soil samples inside the rover. The first of these motors has already successfully completed its task: It placed the Mars helicopter safely on the ground two weeks ago.

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