The good little robot

Look at that thing. It’s beautiful.

That’s Ingenuity, the drone that was sent to Mars on the Perseverance mission. It was intended to be a proof-of-concept test, expected to fly for only a couple of excursions, and then fail under the hellish Martian conditions. Instead, it has survived for two years.

Ingenuity defied the odds the day it first lifted off from Martian soil. The four-pound aircraft stands about 19 inches tall and is little more than a box of avionics with four spindly legs on one end and two rotor blades and a solar panel on the other. But it performed the first powered flight by an aircraft on another planet — what NASA billed a “Wright brothers moment” — after arriving on Mars in April 2021.

It’s made over 50 flights. Apparently it’s a bit wonky, losing radio connection to the rover when it flies out of line of sight, or when the cold shuts it down, but when it warms up, or the rover drives closer, it gets right up again.

NASA has still got good engineering. It might be because of all the redundancy they build into every gadget — this little drone cost $80 million dollars! — but I have a hypothesis that the real secret to its success is what they left out. There’s no narcissistic and incompetent billionaire attached to the project, just a lot of engineers who take pride in their work.


  1. Silentbob says

    I always find it moving to see human made stuff on other worlds.

    It’s great to just see pictures taken on other worlds, but somehow when there’s human hardware in the frame there’s an extra poignancy.

  2. Silentbob says

    What bold and adventurous apes are we? What yearning must we have to spend so much of our resources putting this little machine on another world?

    But I’m no Sagan so I’ll leave the soliloquies to others. X-D

  3. Silentbob says

    I still find it deeply moving, I don’t care what the anti-space exploration jerks say.

  4. Samuel Vimes says

    Oh, right, the drone. The drone for Mars. The drone designed especially for Mars. Mars’s drone.

    …That drone?

  5. chrislawson says

    The most amazing thing about this is that Martian surface gravity is 38% that of Earth’s but the atmospheric pressure is less than 1% Earth’s. I assumed that a helicopter would not be viable on Mars. Big, big kudos to the engineers who not only made a helicopter fly on Mars via remote control with a several-minute light delay, but made it exceed all of its key design parameters and also made it so durable.

  6. wzrd1 says

    To ice that cake, consider that the engineering team actually had fairly low expectations for that helicopter drone.
    Instead, it did precisely what we’ve come to expect from a JPL product and exceeded all expectations on longevity and function. All, while leaving one and all to shake their heads in wonder at simple things like a drill failing to operate as anticipated.
    Because, space isn’t hard at all. It’s fucking hard. Let’s follow Musk now and build a colony to die on. Horrifically.

    Seriously, I’d be unsurprised if those automated explorers survive longer than I will!

  7. StevoR says

    I love this. All this space exploration stuff.

    As folks may have seen we’re also sending robots to Jupiter with the ESA’s Juice mission :

    We’re returning to see the changes and get an extended look at the human-altered asteroid moon of Didymus, Dimorphis :

    Plus my name and thousands of others will be flying on the Europa Clipper also heading to Jove :

    @3. Silentbob : “I still find it deeply moving, I don’t care what the anti-space exploration jerks say.”

    Seconded. That’s one thing we definitely have in common.

  8. remyporter says

    What’s really interesting is that Ingenuity wasn’t considered mission critical- it was a testbed platform and thus was freed of a lot of the software engineering constraints that other portions of the mission were. It runs Linux! It uses Zigbee, the same radio protocol your smart lights use! These things aren’t rated for this class of mission- but using them on this mission is a step towards getting their tech level raised.

    Ingenuity was built to a lower standard than every Mars probe before it.

  9. euclide says

    I love the dichotomy between these NASA projects and most of the private one.

    To get funding, NASA undersell the lifetime of their big science project to get more additional funding after the fact.
    Then we end up with Mars rovers that have 5000% life extension, the Hubble telescope which has already double its lifetime and so on.

    On the private side, the rule is still fake it until you make it with a lot of failed project and overblown promises, that are the only way to get funding

  10. robro says

    Perhaps part of NASA’s success on Mars and the outer planets is because of a maxim followed by a certain tech billionaire in the past: under promise, over deliver.

  11. seversky says

    Why is it that the lack of prominence given to the SpaceX scientists and engineers, who are actually doing all the hard work, reminds me of Hidden Figures>?

  12. numerobis says

    $80 million for a custom drone intended to fly in extreme temperatures, at extreme pressure altitude, in very dusty conditions, for a couple years — and which needs to be ultra-light for the space trip — sounds pretty cheap to me actually.

    Indeed there’s no comparison to Putin’s Roscosmos, which used to be great but now it keeps accidentally drilling holes in its space capsules.

    That’s who you were talking about when you mentioned a narcissistic billionaire having a failing space program, right?

  13. says

    Space exploration is not for risk takers, and the only risks billionaires will take is with other people’s lives, not their own (see: “brain implants”). It’s like the difference between a stuntman and a daredevil: the stuntman plans and expects to survive, the daredevil doesn’t know if he will.

    NASA uses trailing edge technology, prefering commercial computers over custom made because after a decade all the bugs will be found. That’s likely why most of these missions in the last 30 years exceed expectations. According to Universe Today and Forbes, in 2014 the Space Station was still using Thinkpads from the 1990s and 2000s, and probably still does. They switched from XP to Debian around that time.

    Melon Husk would likely insist on using his “superior tech” and would suffer constant failures. Or he’d hide the fact that he’s scouring ebay for second hand computers.

  14. StevoR says

    @ ^ Intransitive : Not for risk takers? Really?

    I mean I see your points but ..really?

  15. Rob Grigjanis says

    chrislawson @5: I was looking for a simple expression for the dependence of hover power on gravity and air density (because I’m too lazy to work it out), and was surprised to see how important gravity is. See here.

    For a drone of given mass and rotor blade size, the hover power* is proportional to


    where g is surface gravity and ρ is air density. If g is 0.38 Earth’s value, and ρ is about 0.01 Earth’s surface value, that means an increase in power of only about 2.3 compared to hovering at sea level on Earth.

    *To get this, you substitute Allain’s 9th equation into the 12th.

  16. numerobis says

    StevoR: as the saying goes, there are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots. And double so in space. Once you’ve accepted the risk of spaceflight, you have to be very conservative afterwards.

  17. Akira MacKenzie says


    blockquote>NASA has still got good engineering. It might be because of all the redundancy they build into every gadget — this little drone cost $80 million dollars! — but I have a hypothesis that the real secret to its success is what they left out. There’s no narcissistic and incompetent billionaire attached to the project, just a lot of engineers who take pride in their work.

    But… but… I have it on very good authority (i.e. said “incompetent billionaires”) that the government CAN’T do anything right and nothing worthwhile is done without the profit motive!

  18. tacitus says

    The $80 million price tag no doubt includes the cost of all the research and development involved in creating the drone in the first place. If they built another the same as Ingenuity for the next mission, it would be a lot cheaper, though with all the testing required to ensure it will work when it gets to Mars, it would still cost in the millions of dollars.

    But, as is usually the case, NASA will look to build on the success of Ingenuity and create a much more capable drone next time around, which will bump the costs back up again, so it’s likely the next drone will actually cost more than Ingenuity in the end.

  19. pipefighter says

    Remember, your tax dollars were going into the development of self landing rockets at least as far back as the 90’s.

    NASA even developed it for awhile. Then, rather than continue it, they canceled it after an accident and the engineers went off to the private sector. Imagine if this happened before the Reagan era and we started handing off literally everything to the private sector.

  20. StevoR says

    PS. Tangential (very) but.. Still wonder what a John Glenn Presidency might’ve looked like and what path it might’ve taken the USA & world on too..

    Imagine how different history could’ve been had he beaten Reagun to become POTUS for the Democratic party in 1985.. Sigh. Alternative history and parallel universe stuff now. Of course they probly wouldn’t have flown the (ex?)POTUS in a Space Shuttle aged in his 70’s yet..

  21. wzrd1 says

    They didn’t build a single Ingenuity, they built several. There’s the ground test model, if there’s a problem with Ingenuity, they test it on the ground model first to see if a fix is able to be implemented. It’s not as if they can send a tech out to fix the deployed model.
    Then, there was the model used in qualification testing. Then, there’s the one that’s deployed on Mars.
    What’s really impressive is, it needs close to 2.5 times the power to get aloft, given Mars atmospheric pressure is equivalent to earth’s atmospheric pressure at 100000 feet. We have trouble keeping airplanes flying at that altitude, yet we have a robot helicopter thumbing its nose at those struggling aircraft.
    SpaceX engineers can’t hold a candle to JPL’s engineers! Although, I can’t find a match for a candle for either of those groups engineers. If I tried to design a helicopter, it’d turn into a drill.

    As for using COTS computers, NASA used to use nothing but customized hardware computers. They don’t have that kind of budget any longer and aside from that, unlike during Apollo, computers are ubiquitous now.

    numerobis @ 16, there was one bold cosmonaut, he didn’t get to become old, as his capsule crashed due to a parachute deployment failure. There’s a photograph on the net that’s easily found with his superiors posing with his incinerated remains, as he demanded that photograph be taken in his will.
    He went on the flight only because had he not, his alternate was Yuri Gagarin.
    There’s not a single aspect of space that isn’t inimical to life. It’s literally so foreign to our physiology, it reverses the blood gas exchange system and literally, on exposure, will evacuate all gases from one’s bloodstream.
    Sounds like a fun vacation spot, huh?

  22. numerobis says

    StevoR: those astronauts didn’t go YOLO and ignore risks, which is what I think of as being “bold”. They were very careful once they decided to fly at all.

    wzrd1: similarly, I wouldn’t say that cosmonaut was bold, he was accepting to die in hopes that his death would fix some leadership problems, and figuring that if he didn’t die, someone else would.

  23. drewl, Mental Toss Flycoon says

    @16 numerobis…
    Chuck Yeager, RIP.

    I have no problem with $80 million robot helicopters (until they come after us)… no problem with my taxes helping to feed kids and people with needs. We can afford both (and other things) if we could cut the military budget a tiny (TINY) bit. But that ain’t happening anytime soon.

  24. birgerjohansson says

    Komarov died in Souyz 1 because of the kind of criminal, politically motivated negligence that was common in the Soviet Union.
    The party wanted the new craft to be launched before the 50th anniversary of the revolution, technicians assembled a long list of unsolved problems but were ignored.

    Gagarin was apparently a genuinely good person who used his prestige to sometimes help ordinary Soviet citizens that faced huge problems.

    In regard to Chuck Yeager, I reacted to his myopic role in the support to West Pakistan during the India-pakistan war.

    The war had its roots in the corrupt handling of the enormous typhoon disaster that hit East Pakistan (half a million dead). When East Pakistan voted for a local leader the dictator of West Pakistan started a genocidal suppression of East Pakistan. Ten million (!) refugees fled to India.
    India had enough and a full-scale war broke out between the countries. Pakistan was a US ally so advisors like Yeager were sent to the pakistani air force. Chuck Yeager seems to never have researched the background of the war he became involved in on the black hat side.
    In my eyes this tarnished his heritage.

  25. Jim Balter says

    I don’t care what the anti-space exploration jerks say.

    You and Elon.

  26. Jim Balter says

    Why is it that the lack of prominence given to the SpaceX scientists and engineers, who are actually doing all the hard work, reminds me of Hidden Figures>?

    I’m going to charitably take you to mean all the hard work at SpaceX that Musk is given credit for. Still, it’s a poor analogy that hijacks the accomplishments of Black women.

  27. StevoR says

    @23. numerobis : “StevoR: those astronauts didn’t go YOLO and ignore risks, which is what I think of as being “bold”. They were very careful once they decided to fly at all.”

    True but still “bold” in my view of the word in daring to fly and do what they did at all. The Star Trek “boldly going” sense of the word.

    @26. Jim Balter : Plus me and many others. Just because one person that feels as we do – or ok even, no doubt, quite a lot of people – is a total douche with a heap of negative traits doesn’t mean that everyone who holds that pro space exploration view is like that. That we have one thing – a love of space exploration and hopeful vision favouring it happening – in common doesn’t mean Elon & I (& Silentbob) have much else in common here. /Cap’n Obvs?

    @27. Jim Balter : Hijacks or highlights or just compares and implies?

  28. chrislawson says

    Quick-fire responses!

    [1] Rob Grigjanis@15 and wzrd1@22–
    Thanks for the maths there. I was treating the gravity and the air pressure as linearly related flying difficulty. Having said that, achieving > 2.3x the power:weight ratio needed on Earth is still a stunning accomplishment.

    [2] Various–
    Please don’t conflate people who are against space exploration (mostly a handful of anti-science Republican senators) with people against space exploration that puts people at risk for no good reason, space exploration that pollutes Earth orbit and the night sky, or space exploration that is really a cover for shifting public money from NASA to private companies.

    [3] seversky@11–
    SpaceX was not involved in the Ingenuity helicopter (there were several private contractors including JPL and Lockheed Martin, but not SpaceX). It’s bad enough complaining about SpaceX engineers not getting credit for projects they didn’t work on. It’s outright racist and sexist to make that comparison to Black women whose crucial roles were long suppressed, ignored, or minimised by historians (and then given a white savior to bravely solve bigotry at NASA in the movie).

  29. wzrd1 says

    chrislawson, that’s White Knight in shining rust armor, to you.
    I think I can find the door on my own…

  30. drewl, Mental Toss Flycoon says

    @25 birgerjohansson… I did not know that. Thank you.
    Yeah, that does tarnish the legend.