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.
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/.
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.
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.
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 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.
“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, firstname.lastname@example.org