The Mars Electric Reusable Flyer is a three-year project—with at least another year and a half left—so my final post obviously can’t overview the entire project. This summer was dedicated to building and testing a prototype capable of consistent, stable flight. Furthermore, the prototype needed to be able to house the Piccolo autopilot (which is about the size of an iPhone). Sometime this fall or next spring, the rest of the team (those employed by NASA) will conduct a high-altitude balloon drop of the Flyer from 100,000 feet. In anticipation of this test, my research revolved around building and testing multiple Flyers with a team of other students under the guidance of a NASA engineer.
A quick note before I discuss some more of the flight testing I did: Not all scientific research requires high tech, expensive equipment. I quickly learned that my iPhone video camera is a powerful tool; I relied on my phone heavily during my time at NASA. During flight tests it would be almost impossible to do any analysis without a video. In the field, the video allowed us to review the flights and make some modifications to either the airframe or launch procedure. I was also able to go through the video frame by frame on my laptop back in the lab to really analyze the flight. Many times I would play through a video twenty or thirty times before fully understanding what happened during the flight. Every time you look back at a video you look for different things. Was the towline still attached? Was the propeller spinning? Were the control surfaces deflected? In what direction? What was their impact on the attitude of the airframe? At what point did the vehicle fail? What was the cause of the failure? Was it avoidable? Was it pilot error? These are the types of question I asked during my research. The majority of my observations were qualitative, not quantitative. Quantitative data is certainly needed for complete analysis, but at this stage in the project qualitative data is more valuable. Enough on this for now.
I am working on the Mars Electric Reusable Flyer (MERF), a three-year project which started about a year and a half ago at NASA’s Langley Research Center (LaRC). The goal of the MERF project is to produce a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft for use in the Martian atmosphere. My project focuses on preparing the Flyer for a high altitude balloon drop test this fall. These preparations include design, construction, electronics integration, and low altitude flight tests. The balloon drop Flyer will have a $7,000 autopilot on board so it is crucial that we fine tune the low altitude model so that the odds of crashing the balloon drop model are minimal.
The Mars Electric Reusable Flyer is a flying Mars rover being designed at NASA’s Langley Research Center by a team of engineers and students led by David North. The long term goal of this project is to design an electric vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) flyer for use on the Martian surface. I will be conducting preliminary tests on the current flyer prototype before more advanced tests are conducted. It is important to understand the flight characteristics of the vehicle so that costly mishaps are less likely to occur during high altitude, powered flights. The preliminary tests of the Flyer will involve low altitude flight tests and vacuum chamber testing to collect drag and lift coefficient data. Low altitude flight tests will be performed by tethering the flyer to a hexacopter and towing it up to the test altitude. The Flyer will be released and flown as a glider. Multiple unpowered flights of the Flyer will be performed and analyzed to collect flight dynamics data. Various other parameters will be analyzed for straight and level flight. In addition to low altitude flight tests, the Flyer and its propellers will be tested in a vacuum chamber to simulate the Martian atmosphere, which is less than 1% of Earth’s. All of the collected data will be used in optimizing the Flyer’s autopilot system.