An Up-Close Look At The First Martian Helicopter

The news was recently abuzz with stories of how the Mars 2020 mission, which launched from Cape Canaveral at the end of July, had done something that no other spacecraft had done before: it had successfully charged the batteries aboard a tiny helicopter that is hitching a ride in the belly of the Mars 2020 rover, Perseverance.

Although the helicopter, aptly named Ingenuity, is only a technology demonstrator, and flight operations will occupy but a small fraction of the time Mars 2020 is devoting to its science missions, it has still understandably captured the popular imagination. This will be humanity’s first attempt at controlled, powered flight on another planet, after all, and that alone is enough to spur intense interest in what amounts to a side-project for NASA. So here’s a closer look at Ingenuity, and what it takes to build a helicopter that will explore another world.

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Hackaday Podcast 074: Stuttering Swashplate, Bending Mirrors, Chasing Curves, And Farewell To Segway

Hackaday editors Elliot Williams and Mike Szczys recap a week of hacks. A telescope mirror that can change shape and a helicopter without a swashplate lead the charge for fascinating engineering. These are closely followed by a vibratory wind generator that has no blades to spin. The Open Source Hardware Association announced a new spec this week to remove “Master” and “Slave” terminology from SPI pin names. The Segway is no more. And a bit of bravery and rock solid soldering skills can resurrect that Macbook that has one dead GPU.

Take a look at the links below if you want to follow along, and as always, tell us what you think about this episode in the comments!

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Building And Flying A Helicopter With A Virtual Swashplate

They say that drummers make the best helicopter pilots, because to master the controls of rotary-wing aircraft, you really need to be able to do something different with each limb and still have all the motions coordinate with each other. The control complexity is due to the mechanical complexity of the swashplate, which translates control inputs into both collective and cyclical changes in the angle of attack of the rotor blades.

As [Tom Stanton] points out in his latest video, a swashplate isn’t always needed. Multicopters dispense with the need for one by differentially controlling four or more motors to provide roll, pitch, and yaw control. But thanks to a doctoral thesis he found, it’s also possible to control a traditional single-rotor helicopter by substituting flexible rotor hinges and precise motor speed control for the swashplate.

You only need to watch the slow-motion videos to see what’s happening: as the motor speed is varied within a single revolution, the tips of the hinged rotor blades lead and lag the main shaft in controlled sections of the cycle. The hinge is angled, which means the angle of attack of each rotor blade changes during each rotation — exactly what the swashplate normally accomplishes. As you can imagine, modulating the speed of a motor within a single revolution when it’s spinning at 3,000 RPM is no mean feat, and [Tom] goes into some detail on that in a follow-up video on his second channel.

It may not replace quadcopters anytime soon, but we really enjoyed the lesson in rotor-wing flight. [Tom] always does a great job of explaining things, whether it’s the Coandă effect or anti-lock brakes for a bike.

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Mars 2020 Rover: Curiosity’s Hi-Tech Twin Is Strapped For Science; Includes A Flying Drone

While Mars may be significantly behind its sunward neighbor in terms of the number of motor vehicles crawling over its surface, it seems like we’re doing our best to close that gap. Over the last 23 years, humans have sent four successful rovers to the surface of the Red Planet, from the tiny Sojourner to the Volkswagen-sized Curiosity. These vehicles have all carved their six-wheeled tracks into the Martian dust, probing the soil and the atmosphere and taking pictures galore, all of which contribute mightily to our understanding of our (sometimes) nearest planetary neighbor.

You’d think then that sending still more rovers to Mars would yield diminishing returns, but it turns out there’s still plenty of science to do, especially if the dream of sending humans there to explore and perhaps live is to come true. And so the fleet of Martian rovers will be joined by two new vehicles over the next year or so, lead by the Mars 2020 program’s yet-to-be-named rover. Here’s a look at the next Martian buggy, and how it’s built for the job it’s intended to do.

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Classic Toy Helicopter Flies Again As DIY Version

For many of us who grew up in the 1970s, “VertiBird”, the fly-it-yourself indoor helicopter, was a toy that was begged for often enough that it eventually appeared under the Christmas tree. And more than a few of the fascinating but delicate toys were defunct by Christmas afternoon, victims of the fatal combination of exuberant play and price-point engineering. But now a DIY version of the classic toy flies again, this time with a more robust design.

To be fair to the designers at Mattel, the toy company that marketed VertiBird, the toy was pretty amazing. The plastic helicopter was powered by a motor located in the central base, which rotated a drive rod that ran through a stiff tether. Small springs in the base and at the copter acted as universal joints to transmit power to the rotor. These springs were the weak point in the design, especially the one in the base, often snapping in two.

[Luke J. Barker]’s redesign puts a tiny gear motor in the aircraft rather than in the base, something that wouldn’t have been feasible in the original. To address the problem of getting electrical power from the base to the aircraft, [Luke] eschewed an expensive slip ring and instead used a standard 3.5-mm audio jack and plug. The plug serves as an axle for the main gear in the base that powers the copter’s rotation; sadly, this version doesn’t tilt the aircraft mechanically to control backward and forward flight like the original. A pair of pots with 3D-printed levers control throttle and flight direction through an Arduino; see it in action in the video below.

These pages abound with rotorcraft builds, both helicopters and multirotor. We appreciate all manner of flying machines, but this one really takes us back.

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Helicopter Chain Saw

Among the most dangerous jobs in the United States are timberjack and aircraft pilot. Combining the two wouldn’t sound like a recipe for success, but in fact it makes the job of trimming trees near pipelines and power lines much safer. That’s what this helicopter-suspended chainsaw does. And it definitely doesn’t look safe, either, but here we are.

The saw is equipped with ten two-foot diameter saws and is powered by a 28 horsepower engine which is separate from the helicopter itself. The pilot suspends the saw under the helicopter and travels along the trees in order to make quick work of tree branches that might be growing into rights-of-way. It’s a much safer (and faster) alternative that sending out bucket trucks or climbers to take care of the trees one-by-one.

Tree trimming is an important part of the maintenance of power lines especially which might get overlooked by the more “glamarous” engineering aspects of the power grid. In fact, poor maintentance of vegitation led to one of the largest blackouts in recent history and is a contributing factor in a large number of smaller power outages. We can’t argue with the sentiment around the saw, either.

Rocket Lab Sets Their Sights On Rapid Reusability By Snagging Rockets In Mid-Air With A Helicopter

Not so very long ago, orbital rockets simply didn’t get reused. After their propellants were expended on the journey to orbit, they petered out and fell back down into the ocean where they were obliterated on impact. Rockets were disposable because, as far as anyone could tell, building another one was cheaper and easier than trying to reuse them. The Space Shuttle had proved that reuse of a spacecraft and its booster was possible, but the promised benefits of reduced cost and higher launch cadence never materialized. If anything, the Space Shuttle was often considered proof that reusability made more sense on paper than it did in the real-world.

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck with Electron rocket

But that was before SpaceX started routinely landing and reflying the first stage of their Falcon 9 booster. Nobody outside the company really knows how much money is being saved by reuse, but there’s no denying the turn-around time from landing to reflight is getting progressively shorter. Moreover, by performing up to three flights on the same booster, SpaceX is demonstrating a launch cadence that is simply unmatched in the industry.

So it should come as no surprise to find that other launch providers are feeling the pressure to develop their own reusability programs. The latest to announce their intent to recover and eventually refly their vehicle is Rocket Lab, despite CEO Peter Beck’s admission that he was originally against the idea. He’s certainly changed his tune. With data collected over the last several flights the company now believes they have a reusability plan that’s compatible with the unique limitations of their diminutive Electron launch vehicle.

According to Beck, the goal isn’t necessarily to save money. During his presentation at the Small Satellite Conference in Utah, he explained that what they’re really going after is an increase in flight frequency. Right now they can build and fly an Electron every month, and while they eventually hope to produce a rocket a week, even a single reuse per core would have a huge impact on their annual launch capability:

If we can get these systems up on orbit quickly and reliably and frequently, we can innovate a lot more and create a lot more opportunities. So launch frequency is really the main driver for why Electron is going reusable. In time, hopefully we can obviously reduce prices as well. But the fundamental reason we’re doing this is launch frequency. Even if I can get the stage back once, I’ve effectively doubled my production ratio.

But, there’s a catch. Electron is too small to support the addition of landing legs and doesn’t have the excess propellants to use its engines during descent. Put simply, the tiny rocket is incapable of landing itself. So Rocket Lab believes the only way to recover the Electron is by snatching it out of the air before it gets to the ground.

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