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A year after landing on Mars, one-of-a-kind helicopter developed in Ventura County still flying

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover took a selfie with the Ingenuity helicopter, seen here about 13 feet from the rover. This image was taken on April 6, 2021.

"Ingenuity" helicopter far exceeding expectations; Chopper has now flown nearly four times more missions on Mars than originally planned.

It's a tiny, experimental unmanned helicopter built in Ventura County that made headlines around the world, as it made the first powered flight in the atmosphere of another planet.

While the headlines are gone, Ingenuity is still flying, long past its projected timeline.

It was just over a year ago that the Perseverance Mars probe landed safely on the Red Planet. It then deployed Ingenuity.

It was an ambitious project, to develop a helicopter which could fly in an atmosphere 100 times thinner than that of Earth.

Ben Pipenberg is the lead engineer on the “Ingenuity” project for AeroVironment, which built the helicopter.

"We were calling this a technology demonstration," said Pipenberg. "That original goal was to just fly five times. That would have totally checked all the boxes for the program, that would have told us everything we had set out to learn."

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

But, things have gone so well the craft recently completed its 19th flight.

AeroVironment is one of the world’s leading drone and unmanned aircraft technology companies, developing civilian and military craft. The Arlington, Virginia based company has four facilities in Simi Valley and Moorpark.

Pipenberg talks about Ingenuity’s flights.

"The flights that we have been completed to date have been somewhere between one and three minutes, and hundreds of meters at a time," said the engineer. "That's both further and longer than we had planned."

One of the most amazing things about the craft is that it’s not a human guided drone. Because of the distance to Mars, it has to be autonomous, and have the technology to react to something like a wind gust.

It has four foot rotor blades, and weighs about four pounds on earth.

So, how much longer will they keep flying the helicopter?

"It's basically going day-by-day," said Pipenberg. He says the craft is still providing key logistical and scientific information.

Pipenberg says while the project has been an incredible successful, they have learned things which can make a future craft even better. He says efforts are underway to develop the next generation of a Mars helicopter.

The engineer says it feels incredible that he, and his team are a part of such a historic mission.

"I think the whole team is overjoyed it's worked so well," said Pipenberg. "I've worked on other things, but this is the pinnacle. It's going to be really hard to beat. How do you follow this one up?"

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.