A fake Mars crew flies a drone for the first time

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For the next year, six scientists have locked themselves away from the rest of humanity in order to pretend to live on Mars (while actually living on the side of a Hawaiian volcano). One of their goals is to figure out what technologies work best and under what conditions. A month into the mission, they're breaking out a drone.

Unfortunately, it's not some crazy, new NASA-designed cousin of the Curiosity. Because the fauxonauts are here on Earth, they can get away with using the same drone everyone else is obsessed with: the DJI Phantom.


The crew's lead engineer Andrzej Stewart sent his battery-powered DJI Phantom 2 drone on a mini-mission for the first time this week. "We used the [drone's] camera to inspect part of the roof of the habitat that we couldn’t reach ourselves," Stewart told me. He's waiting for better weather—the crew recently had a hurricane scare—to take more aerial photos and video of their domed home and their surrounding "Martian" habitat and to conduct faux search-and-rescue simulations. (If The Martian crew had had an aerial drone, perhaps Matt Damon wouldn't have been left behind.)


You might be thinking, wait, doesn't NASA already have rovers on Mars sending back amazing images? And satellites circling it? Why would a Mars team need a drone?

The current rovers are super slow. The Opportunity rover, for instance, crawled at an average speed of 1 cm per second, and they would limit Mars exploration to ground level. As for the satellites, images are taken from hundreds of miles above the Martian surface, so they're not the best, explained Stewart, sending as an example a satellite photo of the Phoenix lander on Mars.

This is the first time that one of the many fake Martian crews has flown a drone. The idea to use a drone during the mission was inspired by Stewart's wife, who is also an aspiring astronaut, but who is not in the dome with him. During graduate school, she worked on small satellites designed at MIT's Space Systems Lab. These gadgets were meant to fly inside the International Space Station.


NASA has also worked on a mini spherical satellite to inspect shuttles externally in space, so that astronauts wouldn't have to leave their spacecraft to inspect their surroundings. It was used to take video of the Columbia shuttle in the late 90s. That is the "closest to remote inspection that has been tested by NASA, at least that I’m aware of," Stewart said.


This is only a first, tiny step. The DJI drone would not cut it on Mars. The atmosphere is super thin so there's not enough air to lift a propeller-powered device like the Phantom 2, Stewart explained.

Luckily, NASA engineers are working on developing robots called "extreme access flyers" at NASA's Kennedy Space Center's Swamp Works lab. These unmanned aerial vehicles, video of one below, are powered by cold-gas thrusters, which is exactly what it sounds like. (If you've ever used a fire extinguisher to propel you across the room on a rolling chair, you've used a cold-gas thruster.)


Because they don't use propellers which depend on air pressure to work, they're ideal tools to explore Mars, asteroids, the Moon and other celestial bodies with thin atmospheres. But for now, during the Mars dress rehearsal on Earth, a DJI Phantom can fill in for its cooler, more expensive cousin.

Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.