Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
Mars is the seventh largest planet, also known as Red Planet. It is also the fourth planet from the sun and the second smallest planet after Mercury. Like Earth, Mars also has seasons, polar ice caps, volcanos, icecaps, canyons etc.
So, can a drone fly on mars?
In short, yes, realistically, a drone designed by NASA, Ingenuity, is actually flying on Mars. NASA heavily modified this drone to fly in Mars’s atmosphere. However, a shop-bought drone is unlikely to develop the thrust in the low air pressure to achieve any lift, despite the lower gravity’s help.
Flying drones on Mars will be very tricky as it needs to adapt to the thin atmosphere of the planet and be able to transition between vertical flight for takeoff, hovering and landing.
To answer this question more scientifically we have to look at the factors that affect the flight of a drone. Why does it fly on Earth and what about Earth makes the drone work.
If we can apply what we know and get data about Mars we can make an educated guess as to work it out.
And I mean an educated guess, because as yet, no one has flown a drone on Mars.
Table of contents:
What Are the Climate Condition On Mars?
There has been a lot of research on Mars climate conditions. Mars has a very thin atmosphere composed of Carbon dioxide, Argon and Nitrogen.
Due to its distance from the sun, it is a colder planet. The average temperature is about minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 60 degrees Celsius).
Thus the climate conditions on Mars vary to have such a significant impact on a drone, that an average shop bought drone would find it difficult to fly in these conditions.
The fact is, that Mars has varying temperatures and in it’s more cold areas, drone flying would be impossible.
However, some areas of Mars are conducive to drone flying with respect to temperature. The highest temperature on Mars is around 30 degrees Celsius, so it’d be like flying a drone in California.
If you could imagine standing on the planet Mars with your drone, at least hypothetically, and have a decent climate, the question then becomes, what other factors come into play to affect the drone, and its control.
What Is the Atmosphere On Mars?
Mars is 95 percent Carbon dioxide. The surface level air pressure is equal to 100,000 feet in our atmosphere. It’s very thin air. It has a very strong magnetic field.
Additionally, the main thrust generation of a drone is the fact that it displaces air, much like an airplane wing to generate thrust. The air pressure that drones fly on earth is 1 STP (standard temp and pressure).
A drone will use this air displacement to generate the lift, and the control, so you can fly it effectively.
The surface of Mars is quite different. According to University Today, the air pressure on the surface of Mars is approximately 1% that of Earth’s.
That as we shall see later is of crucial importance.
Data For Mars:
Here’s a few data points on Mars for you to peruse;
|Distance From Sun||227,943,824 km|
|Surface Area||1.44 × 108 km2|
|Mass||6.417 × 1023 kg|
|Temperature||−82 °F, −63 °C (average)|
|Number Of Moons||2|
|Gravity||37.5% of Earths|
The interesting thing to note from the above table, is that the gravity of the planet is 37.5% that of Earth’s. This means you effectively weigh less on Mars than you do on Earth.
100lbs becomes 37.5 lbs.
And so does your drone. The critical question, then, becomes can a drone, even if the conditions are ideal, develop enough thrust to overcome the gravity of the planet, even though there is less atmospheric pressure with which to achieve lift.
How a Drone Develops Thrust?
A traditional drone uses fan blades to develop thrust. Speed, and pitch of the blade can give a drone or quadcopter the upward lift to reach higher altitudes.
The directional control is achieved by pitching the blades to push thrust in any given direction, giving a drone pilot the ability to control both altitude, and direction, much like a traditional helicopter pilot.
So, the question becomes, is the atmosphere and climate of Mars conducive to be able to use a drone, even overcoming the radio link problems of control from earth. Practically and drone pilot would have to be near.
Answering The Critical Question:
So, we know that Mars can have the conditions that would make drone flying possible, if not downright tricky from a climate point of view.
Answering whether a traditional shop bought drone could fly is a lot trickier, not least of which is because no one has ever tried it.
A check around the forums, and having had a look at some consensus blogs suggest that it may be able to get some life, but the stability would be terrible. It would not be controllable in any realistic sense.
Personally, I have my doubts, but then I’m not an astrophysicist.
The fact that the gravity is much better, providing much needed respite from the planets pull to overcome lift off, doesn’t really cut it for me.
I’m personally of the opinion that the atmosphere is so low, that the spinning blades would generate almost no lift to get the drone off the ground.
So, there you go, not a very scientific answer to say the least, but as nobody has been to Mars with a DJI Phantom 4 it’s good enough educated guesswork.
Interestingly, NASA is in fact developing a drone to take to Mars. Also interestingly, it looks nothing like a model you would buy, thus suggesting some fancy engineering science has been taking place in order to actually get a drone flying on the surface of the Red Planet.
NASA Is Developing a Drone:
NASA is under the process of developing drones which would be used to explore vast areas of Mars. The Langley Research Center project called “ Mars Electrical Reusable Flyer” is planning for the newest autonomous robots and self-driving vehicles.
Take a quick look at this video;
One of the things you notice is the massive wingspan of the drone that has been developed. With the low air pressure, you need this additional length to catch the low air pressure and generate thrust.
More proof, if you ask me, that a traditional drone just wouldn’t work on Mars. If NASA has to develop a drone that looks like this one does, then this is sort of proof really, otherwise why not just use something similar.
Update – April 13, 2021 – There’s A Drone On Mars
At the time of writing this article, NASA was designing a drone that could fly on Mars. Fast forward, and they managed to fly a drone there, and it was deployed on February 8, 2021.
This drone was named Ingenuity, and it was built on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Flight platform. It was aboard the Perseverance Rover launched in the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in July 2021.
NASA designed this drone in collaboration with Qualcomm Technologies. However, it was based on technologies that have been in the works for decades, and it made future drone-based advancements possible.
NASA and Qualcomm Tech had to design this drone to bypass the limitations presented by Mars. As mentioned earlier, Mars has very thin air, which means that a drone will find it difficult to generate lift.
So Ingenuity was designed to be as lightweight as possible. Since it wasn’t possible to get people up there to control the drones with controllers, and communication from Earth takes up to 20 minutes, Ingenuity was equipped with automated navigation and intelligent decision making.
Since power may be an issue, this drone is designed to be at its best performance level, even at the lowest power levels.
How did It happen?
In 2015, Qualcomm Tech was designing a flight platform that would make it easier to develop drone platforms. This was just in time when JPL was looking for a drone that could fly, take photos, and overcome weather and other constraints on another planet. Both programs needed to come together.
Their collaboration also involved open communication, sharing of information, and partnership now that the drone is already on mass and collecting data.
This proves that if Governments can leverage the private sector while the private sector focuses on its strengths, we can achieve several tech advancements.
Since JPL and Qualcomm Tech are still collaborating, we can expect to see more innovations that could allow drones to even fly on other planets or even the moon.
The Ingenuity drone was one of the two drones that NASA was planning to send by 2026. They plan to send another drone named Titan to the Saturn planet, or at least on one of its moons.
Unlike Mars, Saturn is very dense (at least 400 times denser), and its air contains mostly Nitrogen instead of carbon dioxide. While the Ingenuity drone only weighs 1.8 kg and doesn’t carry any equipment.
The Titan is large, and it carries lots of research equipment. If all goes well, the Titan is planned to spend at least 7 years around the planet life-hunting and gathering data.
Can Drones Fly In Space?
Yes, drones can fly in space, but not the common drones we get from shops. NASA is designing special drones that generate lift and thrust with water vapor or oxygen instead of batteries and propellers.
Through the Kennedy Space Station, NASA is designing drones that will overcome vacuums, gravity issues, and air density, which are the constraints the drone will face when flying in space, on the moon, or on other planets.
Mars was considered as one of the hardest planets to land on, but now there’s a rover there and a drone. This goes to show that it will be possible to land on other planets too.
So why is NASA interested in drones?
The same reason delivery companies, photographers, and surveyors are using drones. It’s because drones make remote data collection easier and less risky since you don’t have to visit the area yourself. They’re also easier to operate than larger aircraft.
NASA Drone UAS Traffic Management Project:
Besides conducting research on how to take drones to space and other planets, NASA is also thinking of ways to regulate the drones flown on Earth.
This is through their UTM (UAS Traffic Management) Program. Currently, there are about 2 million drones in the USA, and this number is expected to rise in the near future.
Drones are already presenting risks to people’s privacy, to airplanes, and even interfering with emergency response activities.
The UTM program aims to regulate and control this airspace for drones by obtaining the pilot’s information, the drone registration details, and other parameters that would help them enforce the laws.
So, although not conclusive by any means, yes, drones can fly on Mars.
The fact that NASA has developed one suggests that they can make it work. I certainly hope so, I bet the footage it will catch will be amazing.
However, it wouldn’t really be possible to take a shop bought drone, transport it to Mars and make it work on the Red Planet.
The average temperature would make it difficult enough as it is, but at the higher range the electronics would work. In theory it could fly.
With the low gravity, if it could generate the same thrust you could get it off Mars’ surface easily. The BIG factor though is the air pressure.
With Mars’ air pressure being 1% that of Earth’s, the rotating blades just wouldn’t be able to generate anywhere near enough thrust to make it lift off the ground.
All this has yet to be proven, and it is only an educated guess, but the fact that NASA has to develop one specifically for the purpose lends credence to this belief.