NASA's Mars helicopter Ingenuity has performed its shortest-ever flight, the first after a major software update that will allow the little chopper to land more safely and navigate over rugged terrain.
Ingenuity's 34th flight, which took place on Tuesday (Nov. 22), lasted only 18 seconds and saw the helicopter briefly hover after takeoff above Mars' surface before landing just 16 feet (5 meters) away from its starting point. The flight, the first since Sept. 29, was the first try-out of a new software system that was beamed to Ingenuity from Earth to improve its ability to operate in the rugged terrain that its parent Perseverance rover is currently exploring.
Ingenuity is an extremely successful technology demonstration, but it was built to navigate in smooth terrain, such as Wright Brothers Field, where it was first deployed in April 2021. The helicopter has been nailing one flight after another, prompting its ground control teams to dare to begin sending the flying robot into more complicated landscapes.
These more daring flights required the Ingenuity team to search for level airfields that are free of rocks that could damage the helicopter during landing. Because Jezero Crater, which the helicopter and Perseverance are exploring, is rather rocky, those flat, safe airfields have been hard to find. The new software will use Ingenuity's downward-facing camera to detect risky objects before landing and steer Ingenuity to avoid them, allowing the chopper to use smaller airfields.
"While in flight, Ingenuity will identify the safest visible landing site," the Ingenuity team said in a statement (opens in new tab). "When preparing to land, Ingenuity will then divert over to this selected site."
The software will also make Ingenuity more confident in flight. Since the helicopter was designed to fly over flat fields, its cameras previously could get confused by seeing a hilly landscape underneath. The old software would think the helicopter was veering, which would make it actually veer while in flight in a misguided attempt to stabilize its course.
"Over long flights, navigation errors caused by rough terrain must be accounted for, requiring the team to select large airfields," the Ingenuity team said in the statement. "This new software update corrects this flat-ground assumption by using digital elevation maps of Jezero Crater to help the navigation software distinguish between changes in terrain and vehicle movement."
With the new software, Ingenuity will be able to scout a wider range of terrain types for Perseverance to explore in detail.
"We’re all excited to see where this update will allow us to take Ingenuity’s journey next!" the team wrote.