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Aerial Vehicles for the Inspection of a Martian Surface Settlement and Weather Forecast: Testing and Considerations for Use

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Aerial drones have the potential to revolution planetary exploration, as they can travel higher and faster than rovers but still allowing high-resolution sensing. In recent years, the possibility of using aerial vehicles on Mars went from concept to operations: Mars Helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft developed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, scheduled to be launched in 2020, will demonstrate the viability of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Martian surface. Due to the delay of transmission, teleoperated flight from Earth seems unlikely; nevertheless, in a scenario where crew is settled on the Martian surface (or in orbit), aerial drones could become a key element of the mission. Analogue missions have proved to be an effective way to simulate human activities during space exploration missions. Due to crew isolation in a setting similar to the extreme environments of space, they allow for testing of both hardware and operational scenarios. The research project VESTA brought these two subjects together, evaluating possible uses for drones in a human settlement during a two-week experimentation at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS). Operational complexity and utility for the crew were analysed, with regard to safety, crew time and training. A multicopter was used during Extra-Vehicular Activities (EVAs) and piloting of the vehicle from inside the station was evaluated. Because of the current absence of a global positioning system on Mars, possible alternative navigation technologies were considered. In this case, due to potential safety issues, flight operations were performed using Earth Global Positioning System (GPS); further studies are therefore required to investigate autonomous navigation on Mars. Two different scenarios were evaluated: environment monitoring and settlement inspection. In the first, the drone was flying at high altitude to acquire a general understanding of the outside environment, and as a possible warning weathercast system for sandstorms, a common event in martian environment. For inspection missions, the drone pointed its cameras and sensors at the station and navigated autonomously to specific points of interest on the MDRS facilities, allowing the crew to inspect the external elements, e.g. the solar array, where the level of dust coverage were assessed. The main results from these evaluations were a set of operational scenarios and lessons learned that could be further extrapolated to real off-Earth conditions in future human exploration missions.
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70th International Astronautical Congress (IAC), Washington D.C., United States, 21-25 October 2019.
Copyright 2019 by International Astronautical Federation. All rights reserved.
IAC-19,B6,3,7,x48933
Aerial Vehicles for the Inspection of a Martian Surface Settlement and
Weather Forecast: Testing and Considerations for Use
Paolo Guardabasso1, * and Vittorio Netti2
1ISAE-SUPAERO, paolo.guardabasso@isae-supaero.fr
2University of Houston, vnetti@uh.edu
*Corresponding author
Abstract
Aerial drones have the potential to revolution planetary exploration, as they can travel higher and faster than rovers but
still allowing high-resolution sensing. In recent years, the possibility of using aerial vehicles on Mars went from concept
to operations: Mars Helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft developed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, scheduled to
be launched in 2020, will demonstrate the viability of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Martian surface. Due to the delay
of transmission, teleoperated flight from Earth seems unlikely; nevertheless, in a scenario where crew is settled on the
Martian surface (or in orbit), aerial drones could become a key element of the mission. Analogue missions have proved
to be an effective way to simulate human activities during space exploration missions. Due to crew isolation in a setting
similar to the extreme environments of space, they allow for testing of both hardware and operational scenarios. The
research project VESTA brought these two subjects together, evaluating possible uses for drones in a human settlement
during a two-week experimentation at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS). Operational complexity and utility for
the crew were analysed, with regard to safety, crew time and training. A multicopter was used during Extra-Vehicular
Activities (EVAs) and piloting of the vehicle from inside the station was evaluated. Because of the current absence
of a global positioning system on Mars, possible alternative navigation technologies were considered. In this case,
due to potential safety issues, flight operations were performed using Earth Global Positioning System (GPS); further
studies are therefore required to investigate autonomous navigation on Mars. Two different scenarios were evaluated:
environment monitoring and settlement inspection. In the first, the drone was flying at high altitude to acquire a general
understanding of the outside environment, and as a possible warning weathercast system for sandstorms, a common
event in martian environment. For inspection missions, the drone pointed its cameras and sensors at the station and
navigated autonomously to specific points of interest on the MDRS facilities, allowing the crew to inspect the external
elements, e.g. the solar array, where the level of dust coverage were assessed. The main results from these evaluations
were a set of operational scenarios and lessons learned that could be further extrapolated to real off-Earth conditions in
future human exploration missions.
Keywords: Mars, Exploration, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), Operations, Analog.
Acronyms
BLOS Beyond Line Of Sight
DOME Drone Operations for Martian Environment
EVA Extra-Vehicular Activity
FPV First Person View
GCS Ground Control Station
GPS Global Positioning System
LOS Line Of Sight
MDRS Mars Desert Research Station
RAM Repair and Assembly Module
VTOL Vertical Take Off and Landing
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1. Introduction
In recent years, drone technology has been growing expo-
nentially, with several terrestrial applications being born
and growing to a full commercialisation at an industrial
level in a few years. This paper focuses on the use of au-
tonomous aerial vehicles to support the operations of a hu-
man settlement on Mars. The project VESTA represents
a part of the activities that the Drone Operations for Mar-
tian Environment (DOME) research group is carrying on
to evaluate the potential that autonomous aerial vehicles
have for the future of space exploration.
In this introductory section, an overview of terrestrial
applications of aerial drones is presented. Potential uses
on Mars are also briefly discussed. Analogue missions,
with focus on the MDRS, are briefly introduced. Section
2 contains a description of the research project, the field
test activities at the MDRS and the main takeouts, techni-
cal issues and logistic difficulties. In particular, it reports
on potential mission scenarios, their implementations and
results. Section 3 reports the evaluation of some of the fea-
tures that were not tested during the mission but the role
of which is fundamental to assess for future missions, both
on analogues and on other planets. In the conclusions in
section 4, the results of this research are recapitulated and
the future works are discussed.
1.1 Drone vehicles
Autonomous vehicles have been conceived and used on
Earth for several operational scenarios. Emerging civil ap-
plication range from the maintenance of oil platforms [1]
to farming [2] and fire-fighting [3]. Drones with body-
mounted optical and thermal cameras become very useful
when it is necessary to access remote areas, or in case of
emergency.
Different drone architectures present different capabil-
ities and drawbacks: While a multicopter can fly close to
a target, assuring a higher precision and stability of the
images, a fixed-wing drone can instead scan a greater sur-
face with a higher autonomy, due to the reduced power
consumption required to fly. Nevertheless, while a fixed-
wing vehicle requires sufficient space to take-off (done by
using a runway or by throwing the vehicle in horizontal di-
rection) and land, a multicopter only requires a rather nar-
row vertical corridor, hence being suitable for confined
spaces. A Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) vehicle
combines the advantages of multicopters and fixed-wing
vehicles, creating an asset with a great potential for vari-
ous operations.
1.1.1 Why on Mars
The possibility of using aerial vehicles on Mars has drawn
the attention of engineers and scientists. With the Mars
Helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft to be launched
in 2020 to the Red Planet, the National Aeronautics and
Space Administration (NASA) wants to demonstrate the
viability of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Martian sur-
face [4].
Drones have the potential to revolutionise planetary ex-
ploration, as they can travel at much higher speeds than
rovers but maintaining a distance from the ground reduced
enough to allow high-resolution images [5]. The results
can be used in support of ground operations, paving the
way for robotic and human exploration.
In future human settlements on other planetary sur-
faces, the complexity of the set of systems needed for the
nominal operations of a station will surely require continu-
ous monitoring and maintenance. Moreover, observations
of the surroundings will be crucial to monitor the atmo-
spheric conditions, identifying phenomena such as dust
storms and dust devils [6] or to explore difficult terrain
formations such as steep and narrow canions or lava tubes
[7].
Most of these tasks can be performed by robotic
wheeled vehicles, both autonomous and teleoperated by
astronauts, and satellites. Nevertheless, these are opera-
tions that tend to be time and effort demanding, or require
the presence of astronauts in EVA, which then leads to an
increase of complexity of operations and a steep decrease
in safety (as they have to work outside instead of com-
manding systems from inside).
Dust storms on Mars have been identified as one of
the major difficulties surface settlement missions might
encounter [8]. They are frequent events on the Martian
surface, often generated when the temperature gradients
cause high power winds [9]; this happens especially at
perihelion, when Mars is closest to the Sun. Although the
density on the Martian surface is around 1% of the one
on the Earth [10], winds can become very fast and carry
dust for longer distances, thanks to the low gravity. These
storms increase the risk of damage to external surfaces,
equipment and solar arrays, hence predicting these events
might prevent repairs and unplanned maintenance oper-
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ations, which in turn require a significant portion of the
very valuable astronaut time. Currently, dust storms can
be observed by satellites [11], but the flaw of this system
is to be identified in the time span between the observa-
tions: while a drone, able to fly high above the settlement,
could recognise these events by scanning the sky at the
horizon when needed, astronauts may have to wait hours
before having the orbiter in the correct position for a direct
visual on the event.
1.2 Analogue missions
Simulating environmental conditions of the Martian sur-
face is a fundamental task to design hardware able to with-
stand its extreme conditions and survive throughout its
mission. Nevertheless, considering a future human explo-
ration of the Red Planet with an established settlement on
the surface introduces a new set of questions related to
human behaviour and how it reacts to isolation and con-
finement. It is of great interest to study how well astro-
nauts will be able to perform complex operations, and
to what extent and in which activities robotic operators
could/should replace astronauts.
Analogue stations are facilities, often build in re-
mote and harsh environments (such as deserts, volcanoes,
oceans, lakes or glaciers), where crews participate in mis-
sions of variable length that allow to simulate different as-
pects of long-term exploration missions.
1.2.1 The Mars Desert Research Station
The MDRS is an analogue station operated by the Mars
Society since 2001 in Utah, United States. The facility,
situated in the Moab Desert, provides similar geologic
conditions to Mars, which offers opportunities for rigor-
ous field studies. Its remote location allows as well studies
of human factors in isolation and confinement. A photo of
the MDRS is reported in figure 1.
The facility is composed of 6 buildings: The habitat is a
two story building where the crew spends most of its time,
the Repair and Assembly Module (RAM) module is used
mostly for engineering work, the GreenHab hosts a green-
house for botanical and biological experiments, the Sci-
ence Dome is a microbiological and geological laboratory,
the Musk telescope is used for solar observations, and the
robotic observatory allows observations of the night sky;
the latter is not connected to the network of covered tun-
nels that allow the researchers to move around the station
Figure 1: A view of the MDRS.
without EVA suits while remaining in simulation.
During the day, the campus is powered by a 15 kW solar
system that feeds a 12 kW battery bank; during the night,
a 12kW generator provides power to the station.
The station provides the necessary equipment for EVAs
simulation: upper-body ventilated spacesuits, exploration
electrical rovers, communication radios, tools.
2. Test campaign
The DOME research group was created in September
2018, with the main objective to study the use of drones
in the future of space exploration. The VESTA project
was born to focus on the use of these vehicles to assist
astronauts in housekeeping operations around the station,
with the main objective of reducing task complexity and
time for astronauts, obtaining similar results in a faster and
safer way. The VESTA project was conceived as one of
the two projects carried out by researchers of the DOME
group during their first mission at the MDRS.
The two authors of this research were part of Crew
212 ”LATAM III”, the third Latin American crew organ-
ised by the Mars Society Peru Chapter from 5 to 19 May
2019.
2.1 Mission objectives
The main objective of the VESTA test campaign at MDRS
was to demonstrate the utility of drones for the mainte-
nance and inspection of the station and its surroundings.
As it was the first use on the field for the DOME vehicles,
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it was also of interest to evaluate their operability during a
simulated surface mission. The prefixed objectives of the
mission were:
to perform station inspection flights (section 2.3.1);
to perform weather observation flights (section
2.3.2).
A third objective, to perform a Search and Rescue flight,
was considered during the mission and will be described
in section 2.3.3.
The overall, underlying objective was to evaluate the
effort required to operate a flying vehicle during EVAs
wearing spacesuit simulators, and also the maintenance re-
quired inside the station, drawing a list of considerations
to be transformed in design and operational requirements
for future missions.
2.2 Vehicles and tools
To perform these missions, the DOME group members se-
lected Quadcam, a customised quadcopter equipped with
a camera mounted on a 2-axis gimbal, to perform obser-
vations of the station from a close distance. The vehicle is
powered by a primary battery, that is recharged inside the
station at the end of each mission.
Two other vehicles were utilised by the DOME group
for another research project: Palantir, a fixed-wing vehi-
cle, able to observe the surroundings of the station from a
higher altitude and perform photogrammetry surveys; X5,
a VTOL aircraft, able to fly in two different configurations
(multicopter and fixed-wing). This vehicle was a tech-
nological demonstrator, still in development phase. The
three vehicles employed were transported to the MDRS
before the beginning of simulation and stored in the RAM
during the mission.
Other hardware included:
drone remote control;
portable computer;
support tripod;
telemetry, video and command antennas;
First Person View (FPV) LCD camera screen;
protective tarp;
spares and tools.
The software used to plan the autonomous missions was
the open-source software Mission Planner [12].
2.2.1 Spacesuit simulators
Throughout the mission, researchers in EVA were wearing
the MDRS spacesuit simulators, which are composed of
a helmet and a backpack, containing the air management
systems that allows continuous ventilation inside the hel-
met to avoid air condensation and excessive heat [13].The
suit helped the researchers evaluate the major difficul-
ties of operating aircraft while suited and the main draw-
backs to be assessed for future simulations and eventually
real applications; these comments are reported in section
2.4
2.2.2 Psychological conditions
All the tests that were performed by the researchers have
to be put into the context of a Mars mission simulation: the
crew lives in full simulation, without any direct commu-
nication with the external world, eating long conservation
food and sharing a limited space in a crew of seven people.
Isolation and confinement effects on the crew have to be
taken into account when planning and performing testing
activities.
2.3 Mission scenarios and test results
In this section, the planned operational scenarios to be car-
ried out during EVAs of this analogue mission are dis-
cussed more in depth, and for each the main results and
considerations have been reported.
Scenarios have been simplified in order to prioritise the
safety of the crew and the station’s assets. Flight opera-
tions were performed with both the suited experimenters
in Line Of Sight (LOS), and the Earth GPS was used for
navigation of the flying vehicles. The possibility to com-
mand the vehicles from inside the station (Beyond Line
Of Sight (BLOS) flight) and without the use of the GPS
were not between the objectives of this research. Nev-
ertheless, an evaluation of the potential applications and
available technologies have been further discussed in sec-
tion 3.
As this was the first test campaign, it was important to
identify the drawbacks and risks to be overcome in fol-
lowing tests and simulations. Some of the main issues are
resumed in section 2.4, to be used as a reference list for
future test campaigns.
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(a) In this view of the MDRS, the Habitat, the RAM, part of
the tunnels system and two of the rovers are visible.
(b) Track of the first flight, obtained thanks to the on-board
GPS.
Figure 2: Station inspection flight.
2.3.1 Station inspection flights
An inspection performed by a flying vehicle could obtain
comparable results as surface vehicles, but with much re-
duced time and complexity (for example, the necessity to
avoid obstacles for surface vehicles) and increasing safety,
by avoiding astronauts to perform an EVA to inspect the
designated targets.
Description In this scenario, the vehicle takes off out-
side of the station and circles the settlement site, focusing
on specific points that have been identified by the crew
(rovers, tunnels, solar panels, observatories). Once the
required information have been collected, the vehicle re-
turns back and lands on the designated pad.
Implementation at MDRS The vehicle Quadcam is pre-
pared by the crew members inside the station, and posi-
tioned in the RAM; all systems and communication links
are verified. An autonomous mission is prepared in Mis-
sion Planner [12], selecting waypoints in the vicinity of
points of interest. Two suited analogue astronauts on EVA
access the depressurised RAM from an outside hatch, col-
lect the Quadcam and place it on the ground in the prox-
imity of the station, at a safe distance of at least 10 meters;
a tarp is placed on the ground, to avoid dust contamination
on the vehicle during take-off and landing.
One of the crew members activates the autonomous
mode (remaining ready to pilot the vehicle in stabilised
flight if necessary), and the other crew member controls
the 2-axis gimbal on board while the camera is record-
ing a video. The pilot maintains LOS, while the other
uses a FPV visor to control the camera output in real-time.
The drone moves around the station at an altitude between
20 and 25 meters, observing the set of buildings of the
MDRS, with particular focus on the status of solar panels,
tunnels cover and rovers. Points of interest are highlighted
for further analysis. After completing a path around the
station, the vehicle lands in the initial point and is trans-
ported back into the RAM.
Results and comments The first mission proved success-
ful, with the two analogue astronauts being able to pilot
the vehicle around the station and observe all the points of
interests. The first flight was done in stabilised flight, with
the plan to perform a second one in complete autonomous
flight. The status of the tunnels was judged good, although
some strong winds in the past days had caused the detach-
ment of a final trait of cover that was later repaired.
The most valuable result from this flight came from the
observation of the solar arrays (figure 3): while assessing
their dust coverage status, it was found that 7 solar cells
were faulty and most likely not providing power. This
type of evaluation would have not been possible when
walking, due to the elevated position of the solar array
and their almost horizontal orientation. The frames cap-
tured by Quadcam, reported in figure 3a, required some
further elaboration to enhance the subject 3b, as it would
be seen with a Near Infrared (NIR) camera. The cleaning
status was also evaluated, but it was decided it was still in
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(a) A view of the solar arrays. (b) Solar arrays after post-processing of image: it is visible
how seven cells present a darker colour, which indicate a
possible failure spreading through the system.
Figure 3: Solar array analysis.
nominal conditions (also thanks to the rain of the previous
days).
At the end of the first flight, the vehicle leaned on one
side while the propeller blades were still in motion. This
was due to an intrinsic unbalance of the vehicle, which was
later addressed and corrected. When the vehicle leaned
sideways, the protective cover, placed on the ground to
avoid dust raising, came in contact with the engines on the
left side. The damage was not assessed at the time, due to
the reduced freedom of movement and visibility, and to
the time constraints imposed by mission support for the
duration of the EVA.
2.3.2 Weather observation flights
Drone vehicles allow to fly at altitudes that are hard to
reach for surface vehicles or crew, as this would be pos-
sible only if there were locations high enough to have a
good visibility of the surrounding, while remaining safely
reachable on wheels or foot.
Description In this scenario, the multicopter takes off
from a safe distance from the settlement and climbs up
to a predesignated altitude. From that vantage point, it
hovers while the camera system observes the horizon in
search for dust storms. Once the objectives are reached,
the vehicle lands back on the pad.
Implementation at MDRS Two analogue astronauts take
control respectively of the vehicle and of the camera gim-
bal. After following the same steps as 2.3.1, the vehicle
takes off autonomously from a safe distance of 100 me-
ters from the station, and climbs vertically for 60 meters.
Once reached this altitude, the vehicle hovers, maintaining
its position thanks to the GPS. In the meanwhile, the oper-
ator can use the FPV visor to observe the surroundings by
rotating the gimbal camera, focusing on the weather con-
ditions at the horizon. When all the points of interests are
highlighted for further analysis, the vehicle lands and is
brought back to the station.
Results and comments This mission scenario was planned
for the second EVA. Due to the accident at landing in
the first test scenario, the quadcopter was not considered
ready for a second flight before some verification. In tests
performed inside the station, a malfunction was assessed
on the motors on the left side, mainly due to sand particles
infiltration in the engine. As the conditions didn’t allow
for a safe and controlled flight, it was decided to cancel
the experiment.
Although the weather forecast feature was not tested,
further considerations can be drawn on potential uses of
drones for observing the weather in the proximity of the
station. A potential technology demonstration mission
could employ a drone that is deployed while still being
attached to a cable (constrained flight). This could pro-
vide continuous power and data connections, assuring a
full-day flight time and a continuous early-warning sys-
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tem.
2.3.3 Search and rescue
In a future permanent settlement on the surface of Mars,
multiple robotic workers will be employed and explo-
ration and maintenance human EVAs will be performed.
In this scenario, it will be essential to have systems able to
search and pinpoint lost crew members or robotic vehicles
in case of emergency. In these cases, it would be crucial
to take action in a shorter time and with higher resolution
then an orbiting satellite, while also avoiding other crew
members to search large areas in EVA. While the rescue
crew prepares for the emergency EVA, the drone can be
deployed to pinpoint the target.
Description In this scenario, the multicopter Quadcam
takes off from the station and reaches an area previ-
ously selected by the operator (for example, around the
last known location of the target), where it remains in
flight while scanning the ground following a search pat-
tern based on the terrain morphology, until it is forced to
return to the base.
Implementation at MDRS Similarly to the previous two
mission profiles already described, two suited analogue
astronauts exit the Habitat and recover the hardware from
the depressurised RAM. They install a ground station in a
vantage point where they have clear visibility of the area to
be scanned, in order to maintain constant LOS. They trans-
port a target (in this case was one of the other drones of
the DOME team) to a selected location, in order to recreate
the incident site, and return to the take-off location. The
quadcopter is placed on horizontal ground at a safe dis-
tance of at least 100 meters from the MDRS facilities and
the autopilot is commanded to start the mission. The vehi-
cle reaches the designated area autonomously and moves
along a predefined grid while the camera operator controls
the gimbal and observes through the FPV visor, to assess
the precise location and conditions of the target. The ve-
hicle then returns to the starting point indicated in the mis-
sion plan and lands.
Results and comments The malfunction of the Quadcam,
most probably due to the incident during the first mission,
recurred during take-off right after the autopilot start com-
mand, and the mission was cancelled.
Figure 4: Geological formations in the vicinity of the MDRS;
photo taken with the fixed-wing Palantir from an altitude of 70
meters.
2.3.4 Other potential applications
Drones are an useful asset for geological studies, both
morphological and chemical. Using near-infrared data
acquisition payloads, it is possible to assess the chem-
ical composition of the regolith substrate, while with
Structure-from-Motion (SfM) photogrammetry it is possi-
ble to build detailed 3-dimensional terrain and object mod-
els. The same technique is used by Curiosity to reconstruct
3D models of the surroundings [14]. These models can
be used to determine the geological history of Mars, or to
support the plan of site-specific EVAs with great accuracy,
increasing the safety level of manned operations.
During the mission simulation, the fixed wing drone
Palantir, built by the DOME group, took more than 430
photos of the MDRS’s surroundings with a resolution of
3 cm/pixel (an example is reported in figure 4). As a
reference, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, thanks to
the HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experi-
ment), can take photos with a resolution up to 30 cm/pixel
[15].
2.4 General considerations
In this section are reported the main drawbacks and diffi-
culties met by the DOME team during the test campaign.
Issues encountered were technical (communication prob-
lems, limited availability of repair equipment) as well as
operational (physical fatigue during tests, dependency on
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weather conditions). In general, it was clear how properly
scheduling of these activities resulted crucial for the suc-
cess of the mission, drawing a plan robust enough against
unexpected events; this is a strong lesson learned for fu-
ture campaigns.
Here follows a list of main points that were noted by
the crew during the mission:
The malfunction of the drone, that compromised part
of the objectives of this mission, was mainly due to
dust particles infiltrating the vehicle. This dictates
new design requirements for the next vehicles, where
an engine cover will be required. Landing gears will
be thoroughly tested to avoid instability of the vehicle
when on ground.
While wearing gloves, operations on the vehicles,
especially if small parts had to be removed and re-
mounted, was non trivial: it was hard to access inner
parts of the vehicle with bulky gloves, and precision
was very low. It was necessary to replace small parts
that got lost during EVAs.
Wearing the suit helmet resulted in limited visibility
of the sky. This interferes with the requirement of
keeping LOS throughout the flight, and for this rea-
son, the analogue astronauts had to lean back with the
shoulders, which resulted in back pain and muscular
stress because of the 8kg backpack.
Radio communications were not entirely reliable, es-
pecially on long distances. This caused stress be-
tween the crew members in EVA and lack of under-
standing between the EVA crew and the crew mem-
bers in the station.
• High wind can compromise both the flight of the
drone and its handling on the ground by the crew.
The protective tarp that was placed in the take-off
and landing area was hard to keep in place, as it kept
raising with the wind (this was the main cause of the
damage to the vehicle). Moreover, wind raises dust,
which risks to damage equipment and vehicle parts.
High temperatures forced the crew to perform short
EVAs, with the constraint of time adding stress on the
crew.
3. Evaluation of untested features
Analogue missions represent a fundamental step towards
extra-planetary exploration: they allow the testing and
evaluation of hardware and procedures, to enlarge the
knowledge of human psychology and physiology, and
to analyse the relationship of humans with technol-
ogy.
In this section are reported the possible other technolo-
gies that were not simulated in this first test campaing. The
possibility of commanding a vehicle from inside station is
fundamental to make aerial drone technology more rele-
vant an interesting for future missions; this matter will be
discussed in section 3.1. Moreover, the control interfaces
of such a complex system have to be carefully designed, as
it is discussed in section 3.2. Finally, the absence of a sys-
tem analogous to the Earth GPS required the employment
of a whole other set of technologies, which are introduced
in section 3.3.
3.1 Use from inside the station
The improvement in safety of operations that comes from
the use of aerial drones in planetary exploration is mainly
due to the steep reduction of EVA needed to accomplish a
range of tasks usually assigned to human crews. For this
reason, one of the main requirements in drone utilisation
is the need for platforms that are completely autonomous
or that can be teleoperated from a safe place.
The implications of this requirement include not only
the need to operate the drones from a controlled environ-
ment but the capacity to deploy the drones without an
EVA. The design of a specific airlock that provides ac-
cess to the field for take-off and landing operations for
the drones is fundamental for this application. With this
configuration, it would be possible to access the drones
for maintenance from a human compatible environment
without jeopardising the safety of the crew. For the same
reason, the control instrumentation, placed inside the habi-
tat, shall be connected with an external arrays of anten-
nas.
3.2 Control interface
As it was previously stated,in order to fully capture the
advantages of using drones for a surface settlement, a
great part of drone operations will be conducted in BLOS.
Hence, the design of the control interface inside the station
is crucial. Two different scenarios should be considered in
order to evaluate this feature: autonomous operations and
direct remote control.
In the first case, the autonomous flight controller on the
aircraft will guide the drone through its mission follow-
IAC-19,B6,3,7,x48933 Page 8 of 11
70th International Astronautical Congress (IAC), Washington D.C., United States, 21-25 October 2019.
Copyright 2019 by International Astronautical Federation. All rights reserved.
Figure 5: The portable GCS used by the crew on the field
ing the requirements set before the take-off. The on-board
computer will perform a number of route adjustment in
order to follow the destination tracked by the flight con-
troller. In this scenario, the crew has to assess the status
of the aircraft while it performs its mission, reading the
telemetry from the flight controller and the payload out-
puts. If the readings result off-nominal, a human operator
should decide to take the remote control of the aircraft, or
even terminate the mission.
In the second scenario, a deeper situational awareness
from the pilot is strictly necessary. An on-board navi-
gational camera should provide real-time images of the
surroundings, with a very low latency between the inputs
from the controller, the reaction of the aircraft and the
camera feedback. This precision is difficult to reach if not
with a radio frequency communication.
The Ground Control Station (GCS) setup tested at
MDRS included a portable computer, an analogue-digital
radio relay for the two ways communication (telemetry
and software inputs), an LCD screen and a radio receiver
for the camera feedback and a radio controller for the di-
rect control inputs (figure 5). Even in nominal GCS oper-
ations, an evident difference of range between the cam-
era feedback receiver (shorter range) and the telemetry
(longer range) has been registered, resulting in the loss of
video from the navigation camera; this matter requires fur-
ther investigation.
3.3 Navigation without GPS
As stated before, currently there is no positioning sys-
tem provided by satellites Mars, as on Earth (with the
GPS). For this reason, different non-GPS navigation sys-
tems have been evaluated in order to conduct a feasibil-
ity study for the use of autonomous drone platforms on
Mars. Four different families of systems have been iden-
tified:
inertial-based systems;
vision-based systems;
laser measurement systems;
signal triangulation systems.
An inertial-based systems is built around the software
interpretation of the signal from one or multiple Inertial
Measurement Units (IMUs). An on-board software keeps
track of linear and angular accelerations of the aircraft,
computing the orientation and the linear displacement of
the vehicle to reconstruct the actual position and direction
vectors. As a stand alone system, it suffers of an high
rate of intrinsic errors, mitigated by the overlap with other
sensors, such as compasses or barometers. These systems
usually don’t require external sensors and demand a small
amount of energy [16].
A vision-based system interlaces signals from on-board
cameras to build a visual model of the surroundings. De-
pending on the software complexity, it can be a very ef-
ficient system, especially in narrow places. It is very de-
manding in terms of energy and it can reach high rates of
failures in big areas with a small amount of visual refer-
ence points, like a desert. Similar systems are currently in
development for Entry, Descent and Landing navigation,
such as the FEMIP system [17]
A laser measurement system, called Lidar, uses one or
more fixed or rotary lasers to create a 3D model of the
surrounding with very high precision (this can reach under
1mm, depending on the Lidar characteristics). However,
it is very energy consuming, has a high mass and works
for short distances.
A network of ground-based transmitters could make
possible the use of a signal triangulation method for nav-
igation, allowing the aircraft to compute precisely its dis-
tance and speed of the aircraft with respect to the beacons,
which have a known position [18]. However these sys-
tems require an infrastructure to be set up in place, which
makes this technology unlikely for the first exploration
IAC-19,B6,3,7,x48933 Page 9 of 11
70th International Astronautical Congress (IAC), Washington D.C., United States, 21-25 October 2019.
Copyright 2019 by International Astronautical Federation. All rights reserved.
missions. To set a system around the station, EVA and/or
robotic operations to place the beacons at an appropriate
distance in the surroundings of the settlement will be re-
quired.
Every system has their own pros and cons, and the best
architecture will most likely be composed of multiple re-
dundant systems working together, to reach the level of
safety and reliability needed for autonomous operations.
Further studies are necessary to evaluate this aspect of
flight on Mars, and more test campaign are needed to test
these technologies on the field.
4. Conclusions
This mission to the MDRS was the first simulation per-
formed by the DOME team. During the 12-day mission
the team was able to test one of the two planned scenar-
ios, due the technical difficulties that manifested during
the first flight.
Nevertheless, the first test flight allowed to collect im-
ages that are currently being used to develop machine
learning algorithms for automatic recognition of features
around a planetary surface settlement. Moreover, the
DOME team was able to assess the damage on the solar
cells at MDRS, proving the utility of drone systems around
a surface settlement.
Despite the high-paced and stressful environment, with
the aggravating factor due to the crew isolation and con-
finement during most of the day, these results proved
extremely valid for future research, and helped the re-
searchers start drawing a list of issues (section 2.4) that
will be used as a reference in future simulations.
4.1 Future work
Multiple experimental missions will be needed to thor-
oughly evaluate the utility of aerial drones and their po-
tential for actual space exploration missions. The devel-
opment of such vehicles will also require consistent efforts
in the study of flight dynamics and in the development of
robust algorithms for positioning and collision avoidance.
Moreover, equipping the on-board computer with Artifi-
cial Intelligence (AI)-based computer vision can allow the
processing of images in real-time, immediately providing
a feedback for the astronauts in the station.
In the long term, studies on flight dynamics on Mars
will advance and technological demonstrators such as the
Mars Helicopter will prove the feasibility of such aircraft,
paving the way to their full development as robotic assis-
tants for future missions to Mars.
4.1.1 DOME activities
The DOME team will continue its studies in the field, in-
vestigating the role of autonomous aircraft in the opera-
tions in support of a surface settlement. In particular, one
of the vehicles designed ad operated by the DOME team
has been pre-selected for the AMADEE-20 Mission, led
by the Austrian Space Forum, hosted by the Israel Space
Agency and supported by D-MARS. In the frame of this
mission, the team will use a VTOL aircraft to perform au-
tonomous missions to scan the surface around the station
and help analogue astronauts to plan their EVAs.
Finally, one of the main advantages of developing new
technologies for space exploration is the technological re-
turn: autonomous drones can support and optimise many
human operations, both on Earth and on other planets. The
DOME team is working to transfer the developed knowl-
edge, technologies and procedures to potential terrestrial
applications.
Acknowledgements
The authors of this research would like to thank the Mars
Society for allowing this mission to take place at the
MDRS. A special thank goes to the Mars Society Peru
Chapter for organising the selection and the training of the
crew before the simulation. The authors would also like
to thank the Neutech laboratory in Treviso (Italy) for their
support in the design, assembly and operations of the vehi-
cles. Finally, deep gratitude goes to the rest of Crew 212,
for their patience and support during the mission.
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Research on Application of UAV for Maritime Supervision
  • G.-J Duan
  • P.-F Zhang
G.-J. Duan and P.-F. Zhang, "Research on Application of UAV for Maritime Supervision," Journal of Shipping and Ocean Engineering, vol. 4, pp. 322-326, 2014.
Flight dynamics of a Mars Helicopter
  • H F Grip
H. F. Grip et al., "Flight dynamics of a Mars Helicopter," Proceedings of the 43rd European Rotorcraft Forum, pp. 1-16, 2017. [Online]. Available: https : / / rotorcraft. arc. nasa. gov / Publications/files/ERF2017_final.pdf.