Mars “helicopter” can make Robinson owners feel good?

The Ingenuity “helicopter” (would most folks call it a “drone”?) has done some hover work on Mars.

Cost? $80 million to buy and $5 million/year to operate (Wikipedia).

The goal is to fly up to 16′ vertically and 160′ laterally.

I’m wondering if Robinson R44 owners worldwide are rejoicing. This government project makes a $400,000 Raven I purchase, adjusted for distance traveled and heights achieved, seem quite reasonable, even if you’re paying hangar rent to Bill Gates’s Signature (the climate change expert is also the world’s biggest seller of Jet A fuel to Gulfstreams).

Also fun, below is a photo of the team. They appear to be young enough to have minimal personal risk from COVID-19, yet they’re afraid to sit together unmasked (i.e., less daring than customers of a sports bar in Florida or employees at a typical FBO). They’re watching TV while sitting in front of a “Dare Mighty Things” sign.

Speaking of daring, here’s a front door sign from a coffee shop in Jupiter, Florida this morning:

29 thoughts on “Mars “helicopter” can make Robinson owners feel good?

  1. If Tom Wolfe were alive today, it’d be hard to write “The Right Stuff” with this stuff.

    Makes you wonder how wild this will look to people 40 years in the future….

  2. Will the Robinson R44 fly on Mars? Nyet!
    Would a Robinson survive the temperature range from lift off to the environment on Mars? Nyet!
    Can the Robinson R44 be remotely operated from a distance of 55 million km to 401 million km? Nyet again!

    A better comparison would be to compare the development cost of a DJI drone to the Mars drone. It looks like DJI had a funding round of $30M back in 2014 and $75M back in 2015. From these amounts I would estimate that the cost of developing a DJI drone is about 1/10 of developing Ingenuity, in the range of $8M (this is excluding the cost of setting up manufacturing).

    Considering Ingenuity is a one off drone to operate on Mars, $80 mil may in the right range. It would be interesting to see what the cost would be if NASA ran the contract for the Mars helicopter/drone similar to the commercial crew program or HLS.

    Could JPL get their investment back by making earth versions of the drone, if they sold 100,000 drones at $1000 each, they would make $100 mil? What would the COGS and profit be?

    • @Pavel, it is true that Robinson R44 cannot do any of what the Mars helicopter can, leave alone on Mars being controlled from Earth. However, all the items you listed were already researched, implemented and paid for through other Mars projects. Thus, spending $80 million to build the Mars helicopter and requiring to spend $5 million/year to operate it is excessive. Someone need to look into it and break it down for us, at least our politician in DC should be.

    • My understanding is that the main difficulty for helicopter flying on Mars would be low atmospheric pressure on Mars surface level, equivalent of atmospheric pressure on Earth at altitude above 20 miles, there are no helicopters that fly at such altitudes.

    • @George A. Is the full $80 million budget available through a freedom of information request from JPL? It would be really interesting to see where all the money went.

      Unless we are really missing something, the $5 million operational cost is totally out of wack. They are only scheduled to do 5 flights on Mars, so the operation cost would be $1 million / flight, which will last only 90 seconds, or $40 million/hour! Air Force One costs $200,000 / hour to operate, so a big congratulations to the team at JPL, they managed to make a drone with a higher operational cost than Air Force One 🙂

      JPL/NASA should have launched a competitive bid for the project and it could have been 1/10 the cost.

    • Pavel: As an engineer, I would love it if (1) investors would cough up $105 million to a company in a development stage, and (2) a company could spend all of its capital on engineering. But I suspect that essentially none of the funding (2014 and 2015) you’re describing was used to develop drones. DJI was founded in 2006 and already had been through multiple generations of product by 2014.

    • philg: I was using the $105 mil, which was most likely used on expansion, marketing, sales and not on development, to estimate of what DJI probably spent up to that point. I would estimate that they spent between $5mil and $10mil before the funding rounds, with a significant part spent on development of the Phantom. About 1/10 of what it cost JPL to develop the Mars drone.

    • I hope that it doesn’t cost anywhere near $5-10 million for an experienced company such as DJI to develop a one-off drone. Hobbyists can build one for about $500 (admittedly they’re using a lot of parts that can be standard due to the fact that all hobbyists drones will be flown somewhere between -1,400′ and +14,000′ MSL (though apparently a DJI can fly to about 24,000′; “A Mavic can fuck you up pretty good,” said Renan, “but an Inspire can kill you.” )

    • philg, Even for a company like DJI, It would probably cost $5 mil to $10 mil for a one off drone that can fly on Mars. Mainly because the drone has to operate on Mars in a totally different operational environment then Earth. It also has to survive launch from Earth and landing on Mars. Using two counter rotating blades vs the usual quad configuration, most likely due to the increase in blade area required for Mars, would also add to the development cost. After a few initial calculations to figure out the blade size, battery size, flight time, payload and etc, the majority of the budget would be spent in qualification of all the components for operation on Mars. The testing required would have to be extensive, its not like you can just go to Mars and fix the drone if something does not work. By the time you add up the testing, travel costs and simulating the Mars environment on Earth, $5mil to $10mil would probably be a reasonable budget.

    • How much would it cost for a hobbyist to make a battery-powered drone that can can fly at an altitude of 20 miles above the earth, for a valid comparison? They should do it and be first to do that.

    • LSI: I agree with you that what DJI spent to develop its first drones is not a great guide as to what it would cost for someone to develop a Mars drone. My response to Pavel was regarding his attempt at calculating what DJI might have spent to develop its first drones.

    • LSI and philg: The cost of DJI or AeroVironment (probably more expensive development than DJI) developing a drone, would be a good guide of what it would cost a Mars drone, because both companies would use a professional approach including extensive testing during the development process, both companies would also have to account the cost of all the time required by their employees plus overhead on the project. You cannot compare the cost of a hobbyist to make a battery-powered drone to the cost of JPL building the Mars drone. If hobbyist spends $500 on parts and then spends 1000s of hours in development, the cost is not $500, unless the hobbyist value of time is zero dollars.

  3. I doubt anyone that you see in that photo has a choice whether to wear a mask or not. It’s almost certainly policy.

  4. 2500 RPM 4 foot diameter carbon fiber+foam dual counterrotating rotors.
    To lift 1.8 kg. of mass including 273 grams of batteries.
    For 90 seconds
    In an atmosphere 1/100th as dense as Earth (approximate flight on Earth: 100,000 feet)
    In about 1/3rd the gravity
    Cost $80 million

    Well, I guess all things have to start small. Once we were just infinitesimal bits of nucleic acids and phospholipids floating around in the primordial soup. Now we have NASA, Facebook, and 100+ gender identities.

    Scale it up! I don’t want to ride on or in one, and I don’t think I’ll ever want to, even if I could.

    “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids
    In fact it’s cold as hell
    And there’s no one there to raise them
    If you did”

    “Rocket Man”
    Elton John & Bernie Taupin, April 1972

    • By the way, my “Full of Shit Department of the Year” award goes to Marina Koren at the Atlantic, who apparently knows next to nothing, but whose thoughts are: “My thoughts are mostly ‘Omgggg’ and ‘look how cute it is’ and ‘It’s doing such a good job’…I am not a spacecraft engineer, nor do I know this robot personally. But I am mortal, and we mortals tend to anthropomorphize robots and even have fuzzy feelings toward them.”

      I don’t. And this isn’t a “tremendous feat of engineering.” But Marina isn’t an engineer, either, so she’d never know. To my mind, this is a very expensive, extremely limited and mostly superfluous episode of NASA self-congratulation for the cameras, and not worth the money.

    • Also, I don’t know why anyone is calling it the “Wright Brothers Moment.” Did the Wright Brothers ever fly a helicopter? I thought the history of helicopters was much more complex than that, and didn’t involve them very much at all.

      Isn’t MiMi Aung making a fundamental misstatement of aviation history? I guess we should chalk that up to #WomeninSTEM, always telling it like it is!

      “We can now say we’ve flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” MiMi Aung, NASA’s Ingenuity program manager, told the occupants of the flight control room, all masked to protect against the coronavirus. “We together flew on Mars. We together have our Wright brothers moment.”

    • It’s all about the feelz… Mainstream media prioritizes feelings ahead of facts, data, and truth. This is a relatively new phenomenon. It’s clear that had feelz been in play one or two hundred years ago, we would not enjoy many of the modern lifestyle accoutrements we’ve gotten used to: electricity, potable water, antibiotics, and others.

      Regarding rotorcraft – the Wright Flyer was *not* a rotorcraft by any of the meanings of that word. Nevertheless, the temptation to contrast the Wright brothers with the Mars sister was too strong… Don’t blame this on the media getting too much ahead of themselves, it was planned at NASA from the get-go.

  5. Wonder how much they paid for Dell monitors. Too bad it’s a 1 & done experiment. There’s no future Mars copter. It does make possible a fleet of cubesat sized landers too small to navigate even the smallest rocks.
    They could use rotor blades for entry & use the same rotor blades to hop from point to point.

  6. I don’t get the point why we keep going to Mars, much less why have a drone helicopter on Mars. In my opinion, it would be much better to have a heavy weight rover that can dig deep into the ground looking for concrete evidence of water / life and getting samples back to earth (hopefully the water sample won’t have COVID-like viruses to end life on Earth).

    Mars is now becoming like a hiker, the same hiker who keeps hiking to Mount Everest over and over. The hiker comes back with new and higher quality pictures and videos, not much more not much less. There hasn’t been much of discoveries. All that we have gained is perfected our tools and skills to control remote drones on Mars. So no more pictures or flyover stunts, lets dig deep into the ground and see if water really exist or not. That’s what I would do.

    I’m all for NASA to use our tax money for Mars project, but they have to use it for digging, not for pictures or flying drones.

    • @George A. A Mars drone could be very useful for any Mars rover, especially in more challenging terrain. Since every movement of a Mars rover has to be very carefully planned, sending a Mars drone ahead as a scout to look for points of interest or where to drill the next hole could be extremely useful. The issue here is not with the usefulness of the Mars drone, it is with the cost, now that they have build one, adding one or more to every Mars drone should be much less costly. NASA/JPL should open source the design and then launch a competitive bid process for future Mars drones. They have open sourced the F prime flight software, but they should open source the entire design.

      High resolution pictures and videos are what gets people and society excited about Mars, so as long as they are a reasonable cost of the entire rover, they should always be included.

  7. It is so sad to see what Phil G has become. You are offended that the NASA folks are wearing masks, in accordance with CDC recommendations and government policy for all federal buildings (all federal employees have to wear masks inside federal buildings)? If I had a cool job at NASA I would wear a mask too to avoid any risk to my job.

    You posted your fifth Dr. Seuss post yesterday? Do you really care that much? Do yourself a favor — ignore the right-wing propaganda being pumped into your aggrieved mind. I haven’t heard anything about the Dr. Seuss issue in mainstream media for months, and barely anything there even when it was the right-wing media topic of the day (the lead story on Fox News for 2+ weeks!!).

    This is an example of when an idle mind without a care in the world, who can afford anything he desires and wants for nothing, spends too much time on Facebook and consumes too much right-wing media. I’ve lost formerly-worldly relatives to this crap too and it is demoralizing.

    • Mike: That these folks fear COVID-19 and/or losing their government jobs/pension doesn’t bother me. And, in fact, I wore a mask inside that coffee shop despite the sign saying that it was optional (my 3 minutes of flatten-the-curve heroism to order breakfast sandwiches to be consumed at an outdoor table). I just found it amusing that the folks who have these fears (either of COVID-19 or not retiring with a federal pension) are sitting in front of a Dare Mighty Things sign.

      (As for consuming “right-wing media”, the only media to which I subscribe is the New York Times, which I guess is considered “right wing” from the perspective of the True Progressives.)

    • One does not need to read any “right wing propaganda”, most of north east and western part of USA population becoming folks lacking any critical thinking and ready to call anyone who dares to question general party line a “right wing nut”. Sad to see in country that was founded by folks who where looking for freedom of expression

  8. Fake, fakey, fakey, fake. We allegedly went to the moon with tubes, lost the technology to return, and are now flying RC toy helicopters on Mars. Are people really that gullible?
    At least R-44s are real.

    • Yes, R-44s are real, I flew in one. But may be it was a hologram coded on the surfaces of our universe, how would we know 🙂 And Soviets were on this moon landing scum, they traced and confirmed it. All they had to do is blow a whistle and just like that they would win cold war. I guess that top commies long planned to take over socialists means of production and natural resources and make them their private property, even though they just started kindergarten at a time of moon landings, LOL

    • The Soviets letting on would reduces the Soviets power. Magicians that out other magicians secrets don’t increase their status. If conmen called out all the other conmen more people would be onto them. Same thing with governments. Sorry Boomers, we didn’t go to the moon and you didn’t either.

  9. While I think I see one individual that likely identifies as a female, the Dare Mighty Things Team is woefully lacking in diversity.

  10. Pavel is on to something. For years these little rovers have tiptoed over the terrain and often been stymied. It is worthwhile to have a pathfinder drone to avoid these expensive or even mission-ending delays.

  11. Slightly off topic but I’d like to recommend the Apple+ series For All Mankind. Trailer

    It’s an alternate space history imagining if the Soviets had beaten Americans to the moon and shocked NASA into taking bigger risks. In essence what if NASA actually Dared Mighty Things instead of just putting the words on a wall? I’m only half way through the first season so the alternate path is starting to diverge pretty far from historical events. I don’t know where it’s going but I’m enjoying it very much. A second season is forthcoming.

    For Phil there’s some modern day social justice day dreaming (giving the Mercury 13 women a place in the space program this time, remonstrating Von Braun for his Nazi affiliations as if that was a secret back in the day) that should provide plenty of fodder for this blog.

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