Drone designed for NASA-simulated Mars mission flies over an Italian volcano

It seems to be space week for the drone industry. On the heels of news that NASA would be partnering with drone delivery company Zipline comes another fun tidbit from a drone company that means progress for NASA’s Mars mission.

Industrial drone company Skypersonic has been spending the last couple years building drone and rover software and hardware to support NASA’s simulated Mars mission. And this summer, the Detroit-based drone company completed a fascinating test of its tech inside an active volcano.

Skypersonic sent its Skycopter drone deep inside Mt. Etna, which is an active volcano in Sicily, Italy, which has a landscape similar to Martian geology, for a 15-day test flight. What’s wild though is that the controlling crew wasn’t anywhere near the volcano. The controlling crew wasn’t even in Europe, for that matter.

The drone and rover on the active volcano in Italy were controlled by personnel in Houston, Texas, in real time. That’s possible thanks to Skycopter tech that can control and track drones in GPS-denied environments (a la a volcano). Most other drones require GPS networks to fly.

Photo courtesy of Skypersonic.

What is the NASA simulated Mars mission?

The NASA simulated Mars Mission is set to formally begin this fall as a one-year, analog mission designed to simulate life on Mars, or really any other distant world.

NASA is sending four real people to a 1,700-square-foot module called Mars Dune Alpha. The Mars Dune Alpha is meant to simulate the challenges of a mission on Mars, including resource limitations, equipment failure, communication delays, and other environmental stressors, and will require crew to execute tasks like simulated spacewalks, scientific research, use of virtual reality and robotic controls, and exchanging communications.

That test will then provide data points and researched evidence needed to develop methods and technologies to prevent and resolve potential problems on future human spaceflight missions to the Moon and Mars.

“The analog is critical for testing solutions to meet the complex needs of living on the Martian surface” said Grace Douglas, lead scientist for NASA’s Advanced Food Technology research effort at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “Simulations on Earth will help us understand and counter the physical and mental challenges astronauts will face before they go.”

And among the tech they might use? That Skypersonic Skycopter drone.

During the simulated Mars mission, four crew members living and working in a 1,700-square-foot module on Earth, called Mars Dune Alpha, will carry out a series of missions – including remotely guided exploration and collection of specimens from rugged terrain elsewhere on Earth, up to thousands of miles away,” said Skypersonic CEO Giuseppe Santangelo.

Photo courtesy of Skypersonic.

What to know about Skypersonic and its Skycopter drone

Skypersonic is a subsidiary of publicly traded drone company Red Cat Holdings, which trades publicly on the NASDAQ under ticker RCAT. Skypersonic in 2021 signed a five-year contract with NASA to work on its Mars mission.

The American drone company company is based in Detroit, with a European office in Turin, Italy.

Skypersonic’s premier product is the Skycopter drone, which can be piloted from anywhere — and it claims can fly anywhere, made possible by the drone’s Long Range Real-Time Remote Piloting System. Apparently, that does actually include volcanos.

The drone carries a tiltable video camera designed to work in extreme conditions and ultra-tight spaces, as well as an ultra-bright 360° LED lighting system for applications in complete darkness. Sensors to detect gases and radiation can also be added.

All that is enclosed and protected by an external aerodynamic, ultra-light and ultra-resistant cage to ensure safety and avoid damage to inspected structures and to the airframe itself. As far as software goes, look to the Skyloc technology, a real-time location and monitoring system able to control and track with extremely high accuracy, even when GPS is not available.

Skypersonic primarily builds drones for industrial inspections and first response emergency situations. The company also claims to have invented the first-ever worldwide civil real-time remote piloting system that allows piloting in FPV (first-person view) any drone (not just the Skycopter) located anywhere from a generic internet station located anywhere. 

Its parent company, Red Cat, is a tech giant that owns a number of drone companies including Teal Drones, which started as a modular, consumer-oriented drone but has since pivoted to building military-grade drones. It also owns two major FPV drone companies: Fat Shark and Rotor Riot.

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