Inspired by the Skycrane that NASA devised to safely land Curiosity on the surface of Mars, the European Space Agency has unveiled its own version of the rover-on-a-rope concept: the Dropter.
An engineering team spent eight months developing the quadcopter dropship, which is designed to deliver rovers to their target landing sites while avoiding rock fields, slopes and other hazards.
The flight test was conducted at Airbus's Trauen site in northern Germany, where a 17,000-square-foot patch of simulated Martian terrain was created. After flying to a height of 55 feet, the Dropter decreased its altitude until it was 32 feet above the ground — at which point it began lowering a mock rover on a 16-foot-long bridle, continuing to decrease altitude until the rover touched down.
The Dropter used GPS and inertial systems to fly into position, and then switched to vision-based navigation supplemented by a laser range finder and a barometer to autonomously land the rover without smashing it against any of the jagged rocks.
Having demonstrated that the concept is viable, the European Space Agency says it will continue to assess its possible use for future planetary missions.