The NASA logo on a metallic piece of technology

In early 2021, NASA’s semi-autonomous helicopter, Ingenuity, arrived on Mars tucked underneath the most recent Mars Rover to date, Perseverance. Whilst Perseverance is set to conduct scientific experiments of its own, arguably it's Ingenuity who has the most exciting mission- the robot is intended to become the first aircraft to fly on Mars. This is no mean feat- Mars' atmosphere is extremely thin! Despite being the size of just a box of tissues and weighing a mere 1.8 kg, Ingenuity is set to make scientific history.

What Does Semi-Autonomous Mean?

Ingenuity demonstrates the ways in which the field of Artificial Intelligence has already improved in leaps and bounds. It should be noted that the helicopter is not entirely free from human intervention; it can be controlled when it needs to be. Ingenuity does have a sequenced engine and responds to commands from Earth, but for the duration that the robot is actively carrying out those commands, it runs autonomously. Whilst travelling from A to B, Ingenuity’s guidance software takes over and will execute the helicopter’s take off, landing and course without the need of human intervention, modelling a ‘half-house’ AI system. The helicopter’s semi-autonomous nature allows the device to be more pragmatic and address any threats or challenges that may arise: blockades and restraints to name but two.

As well as Ingenuity’s ability to navigate in unknown and unpredictable conditions, it’s also able to independently identify any faults it may be experiencing, and relay that problem and its cause to Earth. The robot will then power-down to standby until it receives instructions- it won’t attempt to continue its flight if a sensor fails. Ingenuity has three sensors, and they’re all necessary to complete the flight because of the way in which these sensors are fused together.

Looking to the future, AI is expected to play a much bigger part in space experimentation. For now, Ingenuity’s primary goal is to fly independently in Mars’ thin atmosphere, so its scripting is thorough and the helicopter is largely controlled. There are future mission concepts currently in the pipeline that would involve bigger helicopters with much more autonomy, although their intended missions remain subject to speculation.