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Experimental Helicopter Designed, Built In Ventura County Being Prepped For Pioneering Flight On Mars

(KCLU photo)
AeroVironment engineer Ben Pipenberg with a model of the "Ingenuity" helicopter his team developed for the Mars mission.

A space mission which has captured the interest of the world is getting ready for one of its most important phases, one which includes a special craft built in Ventura County.

NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover could help us learn more about the planet’s geology, and possible whether it’s supported life. But, the craft also carried a mission within a mission, one with deep roots in Ventura County. The rover carried a small, specially designed helicopter to Mars, which in a few days will attempt the first powered flight on another planet:

Ben Pipenberg is the lead engineer on the “Ingenuity” helicopter project for AeroVironment. The Simi Valley based company is one of the world’s leading drone, and unmanned aircraft technology companies, developing craft for military and civilian uses.

On a dining room sized table at the company’s headquarters, Pipenberg describes a model of the helicopter. It has four-foot rotor blades, and looks sort of like a spider, with long spindly legs and a box under its belly.

The helicopter is the result of eight years of work by the company. It faced huge hurdles. One of the biggest is huge differences between the atmosphere on Earth, and Mars. The Red Planet’s atmosphere is thin compared to ours. So, to fly the helicopter’s blades have to move many times faster than those on earth.

Another hurdle is the extreme heat and cold on the Red Planet. The material used had to be able to withstand extremes.

And, how do you remote control a helicopter on a planet that can be anywhere from 34 to 250 million miles away from earth, depending on the status of their orbits? The answer is you can’t. It has electronics onboard which allow it to fly autonomously.

The engineer says it’s taken a lot of work to get to the point where “Ingenunity” was ready to go to Mars. The first versions performed poorly, crashing on almost every flight. But, the team learned from its mistakes.

They used a special JPL facility which was in effect a tank which allowed them to simulate atmospheres on other planets.

The helicopter also had to be designed in a way that it could fold up for the flight, withstand the heat and cold en route, and then be remotely deployed. It’s currently going through the deployment process, and it’s so far, so good. The first of a series of planned flights could take place as soon as next week.

(NASA/JPL Image)
NASA/JPL image of what "Ingenuity" might look like flying on Mars

The helicopter’s main mission is to demonstrate the ability to fly on another planet. It could set the stage for the development of future craft which could be used for exploration, and perhaps even moving small payloads.

The plan is for five flights over a month long period. The first flight is only expected to last about 30 seconds, with the craft rising about ten feet above the planet's surface.

Pipenberg says he left graduate school seven years ago to join AeroVironment, and work on the Mars project. The Moorpark man says it’s exciting to see it come together with their craft on now on Mars.

NASA officals are calling Ingenuity’s mission a Wright Brothers moment, with powered flight on another planet for the very first time.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.