Drones are everywhere these days. They're under Christmas trees. They're at the X-Games. They're even in Congress. And if NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has its way, they could be headed to Mars next in the form of the Mars Helicopter.
Rover teams still have a tough time with the Martian surface even though they're flush with terrestrial data. The alien surface is uneven, and ridges and valleys make navigating the terrain difficult. The newest solution proposed by JPL is the Mars Helicopter, an autonomous drone that could "triple the distances that Mars rovers can drive in a Martian day," according to NASA. The helicopter would fly ahead of a rover when its view is blocked and send Earth-bound engineers the right data to plan the rover's route.
The rover teams could also use images from the helicopter to select features for further study, giving them a much closer option than the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and its HiRISE camera, which is over 150 miles above the surface.
Prototype versions of the Mars Helicopter are being tested now. The idea is proposed as an "add-on" to future rover missions, so even if it gets approved it wont be flying any time soon. There's a lot of work to be done between now and then anyway. Compared to Earth, Mars has a much thinner atmosphere and much weaker gravity. What's more, the planet's harsh environment means a drone also must be engineered to be rugged enough to withstand Martian conditions while remaining light enough to fly.