NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter Needs a Flight Control Software Update Before First Flight on Mars

Illustration of NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Ingenuity team has identified a software solution for the command sequence issue identified on Sol 49 (April 9) during a planned high-speed spin-up test of the helicopter’s rotors. Over the weekend, the team considered and tested multiple potential solutions to this issue, concluding that minor modification and reinstallation of Ingenuity’s flight control software is the most robust path forward. This software update will modify the process by which the two flight controllers boot up, allowing the hardware and software to safely transition to the flight state. Modifications to the flight software are being independently reviewed and validated today and tomorrow in testbeds at JPL.

Ingenuity Begins to Spin Its Blades

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter does a slow spin test of its blades, on April 8, 2021, the 48th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. This image was captured by the Navigation Cameras on NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

While the development of the new software change is straightforward, the process of validating it and completing its uplink to Ingenuity will take some time. A detailed timeline for rescheduling the high-speed spin-up test and first flight is still in process. The process of updating Ingenuity’s flight control software will follow established processes for validation with careful and deliberate steps to move the new software through the rover to the base station and then to the helicopter. Intermediate milestones include:

  • Diagnose the issue and develop potential solutions
  • Develop/validate and upload software
  • Load flight software onto flight controllers
  • Boot Ingenuity on new flight software

Once we have passed these milestones, we will prepare Ingenuity for its first flight, which will take several sols, or Mars days. Our best estimate of a targeted flight date is fluid right now, but we are working toward achieving these milestones and will set a flight date next week. We are confident in the team’s ability to work through this challenge and prepare for Ingenuity’s historic first controlled powered flight on another planet.

Mastcam-Z Ingenuity Close-up

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter is seen here in a close-up taken by Mastcam-Z, a pair of zoomable cameras aboard the Perseverance rover. This image was taken on April 5, the 45th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Ingenuity continues to be healthy on the surface on Mars. Critical functions such as power, communications, and thermal control are stable. It is not unexpected for a technology demonstration like this to encounter challenges that need to be worked in real time. The high-risk, high-reward approach we have taken to the first powered, controlled flight on another planet allows us to push the performance envelope in ways we could not with a mission designed to last for years such as Perseverance. In the meantime, while the Ingenuity team does its work, Perseverance will continue to do science with its suite of instruments and is gearing up for a test of the MOXIE technology demonstration.


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