Martian drone project lands $3.1 million grant to test tech over Mars-like Icelandic lava field

The craft could enable scientists to explore previously inaccessible areas of Mars, according to the project's principal investigator.

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Image: Christopher Hamilton and University of Arizona

On Wednesday, the University of Arizona announced that a team led by a member of its faculty had received a $3.1 million grant to develop drone technologies for future Martian exploration. The Rover–Aerial Vehicle Exploration Networks (RAVEN) team is preparing for tests in Iceland where drones will attempt to fly across a vast lava field and more, according to a University of Arizona press release. There are currently many vehicles roving and orbiting the Red Planet, and the project could enable next-generation multicraft Martian exploration.

"With RAVEN, we're adding 'fly' to that list," said Christopher Hamilton, University of Arizona associate professor and RAVEN's principal investigator in the release.

"And not only that–the whole concept is really geared towards building new technology and procedures for two robots to work together on an extraterrestrial body. We are going to look at how a rover and a drone can work together to maximize the scientific output of such a mission," Hamilton continued.

Scientists believe Mars could've hosted life in the distant past, although the Red Planet in its current makeup isn't the most hospitable of locales; at least for humans. Extreme temperature fluctuations, global dust storms, and a comparatively thin atmosphere to shield humans from radiation are just a few of the severe conditions to note.

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When searching for a terrestrial landscape to serve as a "realistic backdrop" for the RAVEN project, the team settled on a lava field in Iceland; an area that once served as a training ground for Apollo-era astronauts, according to the release.

"What makes it especially interesting to us is that the lava was emplaced in a sandy area, which is very similar to what some Martian terrains look like," Hamilton said.

From vast lava flows to collapsed lava tubes, Martian volcanism is evident across our cosmic neighbor's surface. The Red Planet's massive Olympus Mons is the largest volcano in our solar system at 16-miles tall. It's been speculated that the lava tubes tunneling beneath the Martian surface could be "havens" for evidence of ancient life.

To pull back the curtain on the planet's past, multiple human-made rovers have traversed the Martian surface. The RAVEN project could provide scientists with new research opportunities.

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"Volcanic terrains offer exciting targets for exploration because of their potential to generate habitable hydrothermal systems, which could support or preserve microbial life," Hamilton said. "RAVEN would make such locations accessible for the first time."

The RAVEN project builds on the foundation set by other aerial exploration missions such as the Mars Helicopter and the Titan-bound DragonFly spacecraft, according to the release. The Mars Helicopter is attached to the Perseverance Rover now en route to Mars. The craft is scheduled to land on Mars on Feb. 18 with aerial tests planned during the mission. These flights will be critical to the RAVEN team's objectives.

"Once Mars Helicopter demonstrates the ability to fly on Mars, we would design the next-generation system capabilities," Hamilton said. "Specifically, we'd be looking at what you would do with the next-generation architecture."

A prototype claw is a "centerpiece" of the project and this component could enable a craft to collect samples and return these materials to a rover, according to the release, with other tests including "alternative payload configurations," LiDar, drilling capabilities, and more.

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