Engineers Show Off Their Contribution To The Mars Ingenuity Helicopter

Photo Credit: Steve Gregory

Some engineers in Simi Valley have shown off their contributions to the Mars Ingenuity Helicopter. KFI's Steve Gregory was there.

The work done by AeroVironment represents a pretty big chunk of the design of the interplanetary aircraft. What percentage of Ingenuity were you responsible for?

"Well, that's a good question. You know, it was a big team effort. Everybody worked on a lot of different parts, you know, big team effort."

Can you tell that's a bit of a sensitive question?

"All we can say is what we built and what we didn't build and what we worked with them together on it and but the rotor system was the main thing this is the the rotor blades, the motors, the actuators, the swash plates, the central mast, the backer for the solar array, and then the landing gear, support plate, those hinges you saw and then the landing legs themselves."

That was Ben Pipenberg and Matt Keennon, part of the Ingenuity team at AeroVironment, a government contractor responsible for a lot of high tech machinery and gadgetry. They say most of the remaining parts and design were handled by JPL and Lockheed.

Pipenberg is the Chief Engineer for the project. So I asked him where he was when Ingenuity made its first flight on Mars.

"We were actually in this building. We were on the downlink with JPL online and so we were seeing it come in as they were getting the data as well. This was essentially the moment that we found out if the last eight years of all of our blood, sweat and tears was going to pay off. Yeah, it was a huge relief when we when we got that first little bit of information that said that we were still alive and that we had survived."

Engineer Sarah Langberg worked on the composite portion of Ingenuity, which included the specially designed rotor blades.

What's the one thing you were watching for when the data came back?

"I was just waiting for JPL to to tell us, it looks like we've flown and it looks like we've landed successfully. And so I knew we were still alive and would go on to fly another day."

So did you scream or take a shot of tequila?

"Well, there may or may not have been champagne involved."

I was recently allowed inside the testing facility in Simi Valley to get an up close and personal demonstration of the helicopter in flight. And while the helicopter looks identical to Ingenuity, it's actually a bit different. Pipenberg says they call their aircraft, Terry the terrestrial helicopter.

"The motors were redesigned to be more powerful to have higher torque to handle the denser atmosphere here and the higher gravity. And it doesn't need to be a spacecraft and so it's using more conventional avionics."

Langberg takes me to a table where there's various parts of the helicopter on display,

Describe what you're holding.

"So this is the rotor blade for Ingenuity and Mars helicopter. And it's a carbon fiber, skin and spark app over an engineering foamcore."

She holds it up in thumps it to illustrate its lightweight design. Now, it's time to see Terry the terrestrial helicopter take flight. Technical lead, Matt Keennan is at the controls.

"Okay, so I'm actually going to power it up while I'm giving a little overview if it takes a moment to self initialize. We have oversize motors, but the rotor blades are the same. Alright, so I'm going to go ahead and start the flight sequence here, and this is very much what Ingenuity would look like flying. So it has the same characteristics and this is just giving you a little idea in forward flight."

And while Terry's flying on Earth. Here's what Ingenuity actually sounds like on Mars when it flies as recorded by the Mars rover Perseverance.

Back here on Earth, Keennan does a fly-by in front of me then the helicopter lands.

"And that's Terry flying for you, it worked well."

Wahid Nawabi is the President and CEO of AeroVironment.

You must be like a proud dad.

"Absolutely. More than that. I mean, it's just you look forward to coming to work every day."

Talking about the Ingenuity then, how did that come to be that you were involved?

"So actually, we've had a long relationship, very long relationship with JPL and NASA for many, many years. They immediately when this project came up, they thought about contacting us so that that happened many, many years ago, when the first the program was there."

In an odd way. If it weren't for your company, Ingenuity might not exist.

"That's quite possibly very true. Very true. I mean...and that's the kind of thought process which you just actually articulated so well goes through our minds on a regular basis on projects like this, which is, if we don't make this happen, it may not happen at all, and that's a huge deal."

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