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NASA is building prospecting drones to look for resources on Mars

Engineers test gas jets instead of rotors to operate in thin atmospheres

NASA / Swamp Works

Establishing a permanent base on another planet is going to be insanely difficult, but NASA is hoping to make at least one part of the mission easier by building quadcopters that can scout for resources and shelter on other worlds. Prototypes being constructed at NASA's experimental Swamp Works laboratory under the name Extreme Access Flyers are designed to operate in very thin atmospheres or even completely airless environments, with some using gas jets instead of rotors to fly and maneuver.

Autonomous drones can go where rovers can't

"This is a prospecting robot," said senior Swamp Works technologist Rob Mueller in a press statement. "The first step in being able to use resources on Mars or an asteroid is to find out where the resources are. They are most likely in hard-to-access areas where there is permanent shadow. Some of the crater walls are angled 30 degrees or more, and that's far too steep for a traditional rover to navigate and climb." These craft could be used to look for water-ice, says NASA, carrying small soil samples back to a lander for analysis, where they could also top up their batteries and propellant.

A prototype drone being tested in a gimbal to recreate low gravity conditions on an asteroid. (NASA / Swamp Works)

Swamp Works' engineers have designed a number of prototypes, including a model with ducted fans that is five feet across: double the size of most commercial quadcopters, but about as big as the team needs for an operational mission. NASA says these test craft couldn't have been built so fast "even five years ago," with advances in 3D-printing, flight controllers, and mapping software all helping to speed production. The team is also working on autonomous flight software that will steer the quadcopter based on alien terrain and landmarks. After all, there's no GPS on the Moon.

The drones could look for resources — but also shelter in tunnels left by volcanoes

NASA imagines the drones could be used to find water and other elements that could be processed into fuel for spacecraft or air for humans. They could also be used to scout for lava tubes — natural tunnels formed by volcanoes that exist on the Moon and Mars. "You could put a whole habitat inside a lava tube to shelter astronauts from radiation, thermal extremes, weather and micrometeorites," said Mueller. The autonomous quadcopters could even find a use on Earth, where their soil-sampling tools might be used to test for radiation in nuclear disasters.