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Little more than a century after man first took to the air in sustained, controlled, powered flight here on earth, we've just flown a helicopter on Mars.
Okay, there was nobody in the Mars copter but the sheer technological achievement that this represents can not be overstated.
The challenges involved in getting this small unmanned coaxial helicopter to fly on a world that is presently some 160 million Km away are astonishing and that we succeeded is an impressive testiment to mankind's ingenuity and perserverence (puns intended).
My gob is well and truly smacked.
Even if we set aside the difficulties and complexities of getting this little helicopter to the red planet, the work required to design, build, test and deploy this craft was huge.
Due to the extreme distances involved and the latency this introduces into any control/telemetry connections, the craft had to be totally autonomous -- capable of flying itself without any realtime input or corrections from those back on planet earth.
Also, many of the support technologies we take for granted when flying drones here on our planet are simply missing on Mars. There is no GPS to accurately determine the craft's position, speed or heading and there isn't even a magnetic field that can be used for orientation like our own North and South poles.
Don't even get me started on the difficulty associated with producing sufficient lift from an atmosphere that is just one percent the density of our own. Despite the fact that Mars has only one third the gravity of earth, that paltry atmosphere requires that the helicopter's rotors spin at almost 3,000 RPM in order to generate enough thrust.
Then there's the issue of powering and protecting the onboard systems.
Essentially the helicopter is 100 percent solar powered. Every day it must spend many hours simply sitting in the sun and recharging its batteries in anticipation of a very brief flight. What's more, it can't use all its stored energy for flying, a good deal of it must be reserved for keeping the storage cells and electronics warm through the bitter-cold Martian night.
What is most interesting to me is that this "drone" flying on a far away world owes so much to the pioneers in the RC hobby. Much of the technology used in this drone was first experimented with and developed by avid hobbyists. As we toiled away with rudimentary gyros and crudely cobbled together bits of electronics and firmware, little did we envisage, just a decade or so ago, that we'd be seeing a craft like this hovering on Mars such a short time later.
Of course it saddens me immensely that while the world (and the US government) are busy celebrating this milestone of man's achievement, the very hobby that gave birth to much of this tech, knowledge and skill is being almost regulated out of existance.
How quickly they forget the importance of a few very clever people who just want to have some good safe fun and are willing to freely invest their own time, knowledge and abilities to do so.
I honestly worry about where the world is headed when we have a government that is proposing that small flying toys and their owners (including kids) will need to be registered with the state for fear of -- what exactly?
Without the freedom to create, experiment and enjoy the fruits of one's labours in this way, we will become a civilization that simply forgets how to innovate -- for fear of falling foul of some ridiculous, unjustified rule or regulation and facing a stiff fine or other censure for our efforts.
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