Helicopter designed by AMA member makes historic flight on Mars

Ingenuity helicopter on the surface of Mars

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter can be seen on Mars as viewed by the Perseverance rover’s rear Hazard Camera on April 4, 2021, the 44th Martian day or sol, of the mission. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Many modelers take great pride in seeing something they have built successfully take off and fly then come in for a smooth landing. For one AMA member, one of his creations did just that—except its maiden flight took place on Mars.

“I would never have imagined as a kid having something that I built land on another planet,” Matt Keennon, project manager for AeroVironment, Inc., said from his office in Simi Valley, California. Matt helped design, test, and build Ingenuity, a roughly 4-pound helicopter that made its first flight on Mars April 19, 2021, at 3:34 a.m. EDT.

Perseverance rover on the surface of Mars

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter extends vertically into place after being rotated outward from its horizontal position on the belly of the Perseverance rover on March 29, 2021, the 38th Martian day or sol, of the mission. This image was taken by the WATSON (Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering) camera on the SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals) instrument, located at the end of the rover’s long robotic arm. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Until April 3, the helicopter was attached to the belly of the Perseverance rover. Perseverance was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Cape Canaveral in Brevard County, Florida, to Mars via a rocket on July 30, 2020.

“The rover landed on Mars on February 18,” Matt explained. “From then until now, the rover has been going through specific stations, getting itself commissioned, [etc.].” When interviewed April 1, Matt shared that Perseverance had deployed all of its legs and rotated into a vertical position. On April 3, NASA posted a photo of Ingenuity on Mars’ surface. On April 4, a photo taken by Ingenuity of the floor of the Jezero Crater and of two wheels of the Perseverance Mars rover was posted. Additional photos and videos can be viewed at https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/.

Launch of Perseverance rover on Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover onboard launches from Space Launch Complex 41 on July 30, 2020, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The Perseverance rover is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the Red Planet. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky).

After the helicopter was released, Perseverance moved away from it to complete other tasks. “This is the first time that this has been done,” Matt said about the NASA mission. “It’s several days between the day the heli drops and the first flight.” The helicopter’s battery is solar powered, so it will need to stay on Mars’ surface to charge its Li-Ion batteries before each flight can take place. In addition to the maiden, four preprogrammed flights are planned for the aircraft, Matt added. The batteries should provide enough energy for one 90-second flight per Martian day, according to NASA.

surface of Mars under the Perseverance rover
This low-resolution view of the floor of Mars’ Jezero Crater and a portion of two wheels of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover was captured by the color imager aboard the agency’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter. The image was taken on April 3, 2021, while the solar-powered rotorcraft was still beneath the rover after being deployed. A few higher-resolution images are expected to be acquired by this imager during each of Ingenuity’s test flights. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Designing, building, and testing the helicopter was a group effort, which was led overall by JPL. “It’s a group project model helicopter, basically,” Matt stated. Former AMA member and fellow micro RC aircraft designer, Ben Pipenberg, was the chief designer and design engineer for the Ingenuity project. “He did the most design and fabrication work. This was his first big professional project. He rose to the challenge and kind of took the lead,” Matt said. “He led the mechanical team. I led the team overall in electronics and other aspects. The main part of the build was mechanical.” JPL did all of the avionics, the battery pack, the power systems, flight controls, software, navigation, radio systems, etc. Other contractors were also involved with the project.

Matt Keennon with the Ingenuity helicopter
Matt Keennon poses with one of the Mars helicopter engineering models in his office. It is the same size and design as the helicopter that is currently on Mars.

Other AMA members and/or model builders are employed by AeroVironment, Inc, which was hired by NASA (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) to develop the helicopter, Matt added. In fact, his love of model aviation is what helped him get the job.

Matt Keennon holding a P-47d Thunderbolt model
Matt scratch-built this RC micro P-47D Thunderbolt.

Matt was recruited in 1995 while at a Flight Masters Scale Rubber-Powered Free Flight event at Mile Square Regional Park in Orange County, California. He attended the contest so that he could meet up with his former middle school model aviation class teacher, Bill Warner. “I wanted to show [Bill] some things I had developed.” Martyn Cowley, who was working for AeroVironment at the time, was also at the event.

“I would never have imagined as a kid having something that I built land on another planet.”

—Matt Keennon

“We were just milling around and mingling, and I was showing Bill Warner my stuff,” Matt stated about that day. [Martyn] kind of listened in” and asked Matt if he had an interest in aeronautics. “He encouraged me to apply for a job at AeroVironment.

“So, I came in for the interview and that was quite a day.” Matt remembers that he brought an RC blimp, rubber band-powered helicopters, and other aircraft to the interview. “It was pretty much a perfect fit for me.”

Matt began working on Ingenuity in 2014. “I ran a demonstration showing that the heli could generate enough thrust to operate on Mars. We built a small helicopter on a test stand that would move vertically on rails. [The demonstration was] done in a JPL chamber in Mars’ gravity. That was successful—that showed it was fundamentally promising.

“I led the effort to build subscale model helis that were 12 inches in diameter using RC model parts,” Matt explained. “I did the piloting for those small models. They got off the ground, but they weren’t controllable, and kind of took off and flew to the side. We eventually busted both of those. That led to another demonstration (and more prototypes).”

The helicopter that is currently on Mars has carbon-fiber blades that span 4 feet from tip to tip. A small swatch of the fabric that covered the wing of Wright Flyer 1, designed and built by the Wright brothers, is wrapped around a cable that is located underneath the helicopter’s solar panel.

Matt reflected on the historic flight after it took place. “At the moment we heard that Ingenuity passed through its commanded steps of spin-up, takeoff, climb, hover, rotate 96° in yaw, descend, touchdown, and spin down, I was completely over the moon ecstatic about the incredible success,” he stated.

—by Rachelle Haughn, rachelleh@modelaircraft.org

12 comments

  1. Well, I’m sure it has its remote ID working. Because even if Mars were a FRIA site, there’s no pilot in line of site controlling it. 🙂

  2. Another story that I have thoroughly enjoyed reading. Thanks Rachelle!

    Any day now Matt! Thanks!! We all share your suspense and excitement. Cheers! James

  3. So did the FAA overstep their bounds and require transponders to fly on mars like they do here? (hey, somebody has to ask)

  4. I flew IC and electrics at Mile Square Park long before they converted it to more golfing venue. It is good to make public that involvement in model aircraft has led a number of people into significant aeronautic and space engineering pursuits going back to Reginald Denny, Jimmy Stewart, and including a number of astronauts including Neil Armstrong. I had an interesting 40-year career in Aerospace working on the Saturn S-II Booster, Apollo/Soyouz, Space Shuttle Orbiter and GPS programs and built and flew all kinds of models since 1949, still at it at age 82. Might be good to ask AMA members to indicate on membership profiles whether they have had employment/careers in Aerospace, Military or civil aviation, or other scientific or technical fields promoted by their participation in model aviation. This information could be used to support discussions with government, state and city governments regarding support for model aircraft flying fields.

  5. I had the honor of meeting Matt Keennon in the gymnasium of the Downsville, NY High School during the NEAT fair one weekend several years ago. He is a fine person, an excellent engineer and an amazing modeler. Congratulations to him on this latest accomplishment.

  6. Having been around since before WW2, the 21st-Century technology is especially fantastic. As Nicola Tesla opined,so many years ago, I have a device small enough to fit into my pocket, capable of connecting to anyone, anywhere in the World.

  7. What is the average pitch of the blades and what will be the rpm required to lift off the surface of Mars, since the atmosphere is we’ve been told is 1/100 as dense as it is on earth.

  8. I am AMA number 9062 and have been involved in aviation for over 60 years. It is wonderful to see a model doing research on mars. Thanks to all involved.
    Dave

  9. Matt’s achievement is such a natural outgrowth of the hobby. It is a wonderful example of translating logic,experience and persistence from model airplane design to the exciting model of a helicopter flying on Mars.Carrying a piece of fabric from the Wright flyer is a thrilling touch demonstrating tha significance of Matt’s work. This is a historic achievement. Congratulations.

  10. At the age of 75 I am building and flying RC. I started building rubber powered models at 11 from prints in magazines,never stopped the hobby. I got my private pilot license in 1978 while working in computer R&D and pursuing a mechanical engineering degree.I later worked at Williams International in R&D, developing and building the Cruse Missile engine. I recently built a light sport aircraft the CGS Hawk ArrowII and also fly a Quick Silver MX Sport Ultralight. My pilot friends and I also fly our RC aircraft at the grass strip airport.

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