Could DARPA Landing Gear Advancements be Adapted to Mars Landers?

DARPA, the Pentagons's advanced research group, and the Georgia Institute of Technology  are working on a way to solve one of the biggest problems with helicopters: landing on uneven terrain like steep slopes and moving platforms.

It's a problem that Mars Landers experience as well.

Adaptive Landing Gear. Credit: DARPA

Helicopters are incredibly maneuverable in the air, but tipping rotors into a steep hillsides, rocky terrain and even rocking ships are challenges with which even the best of pilots struggle.  A level landing is always the goal, but in some cases this can take incredible hand-eye coordination and can, even then, end in disaster.

That’s why having the helicopter’s landing gear adapt to the terrain, instead of having the pilot adapt to it, is so attractive.

​This could be doubly important when landing on Mars. DUring a robotic descent and landing, unseen crevices, boulders and slopes could be overcome with an adaptive landing gear.

As part of its effort to provide such a breakthrough capability, DARPA conducted an experimental demonstration of a novel robotic landing gear system using an RC model helicopter as part of their Mission Adaptive Rotor (MAR) program (now undergoing continued development by the Georgia Institute of Technology).

Ashish Bagai, DARPA Program Manager, recently described the results at Wait, What? A Future Technology Forum help in St.Louis, Missouri:

The equipment-mounted on an otherwise unmodified, unmanned helicopter-successfully demonstrated the ability to land and take off from terrain that would be impossible to operate from with standard landing gear.

The adaptive system replaces standard landing gear with four articulated, jointed legs that are able to fold up next to the helicopter's fuselage while in flight and are equipped with force-sensitive contact sensors in their feet.

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During landing, each leg extends and uses its sensors to determine in real time the appropriate angle to assume to ensure that the helicopter stays level and minimize any risk of the rotor touching the landing area.

Along with comprehensive dynamic simulation and structural analyses, the demonstration flight-conducted near Atlanta-indicated numerous potential benefits, Bagai said, including:

  • Reduced risk of damage during hard landings, by as much as a factor of five, compared to conventional landing gear
  • Stable landing and take-off on sloping terrain of up to 20 degrees, more than twice current limits, and on craggy, boulder-strewn or otherwise irregular terrain
  • Ship landings in violent sea states
  • Significant increase in capabilities with only a modest increase in landing gear weight

The success of the program begs the question: Can the technology be adapted to space vehicles and planetary landers?  The Mars Curiosity rover successfully used a different type of landing system, but could adaptive landing gear reduce the risk of landing in the harsh and rough terrain future explorers may encounter? 

Take a look at this video from DARPA and see what you think.

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