Interview | Dr J (Bob) Balaram, Designer of the NASA Ingenuity Mars Helicopter

On 19 April, NASA made history by becoming the first space agency to fly an aircraft on another planet. Its Ingenuity helicopter took an almost 40-second flight, rising three metres up in the air in the Jezero Crater on Mars. NASA has called the event its Wright brothers moment, as the siblings flew the world’s first plane in 1903. Ingenuity also carried with it a postage-sized piece of fabric from their aircraft, known as the Flyer, and it was attached to a cable under the solar panel. While significant, the flight was also experimental and not without obstacles, as a software issue almost threw a spanner in the works.

Flying three metres high might not seem like a big deal, seeing how we’re able to achieve far greater heights on Earth. However, flying in the Martian atmosphere is not an easy feat, as it is very different from that of the Earth.

“The main reason is that the atmosphere is very, very thin. It’s about one percent of the density of the atmosphere at [Earth’s] sea level. That’s the equivalent of about 100,000 feet of altitude on Earth or three times the height of Mount Everest. We don’t generally fly things that high. Commercial airliners fly at about 35,000 feet; the Earth record for helicopter altitude at about 41,000 feet,” explained Amelia Quon, Ingenuity chamber test engineer at JPL, during a press conference.

In order to fly, the helicopter had to be small and light. It weighs 1.8 kg and stands at around 0.49 metres tall. It has two pairs of light, counter-rotating blades (an upper and lower pair) that makes it easy for the helicopter to slice through the Martian atmosphere and gain altitude.

This flight would not have been possible without the team working on the Perseverance rover, and in particular, the Ingenuity helicopter. Indian-origin engineer Dr J (Bob) Balaram is the chief engineer and designer of this project. He works at the Mobility & Robotic Systems Department at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and has worked at NASA for the last 20 years.

Balaram is not the first Indian origin scientist to be involved in this Mars mission. Swati Mohan, another Indian, was the lead operation engineer for the Perseverance rover project. The rover carried the helicopter to Mars and only recently introduced it to the planet. More than a dozen engineers of Indian origin are involved in the mission, which is something US President Joe Biden touched upon in February when he said Indian-Americans are taking over the US.

As a child, Balaram was inspired by the Apollo landings on the moon, which sparked an interest in space exploration. NASA said when an interviewer asked whether anyone had told him the idea of a Mars helicopter was crazy, Balaram quickly jumped in and said, “Everyone. All the time.”

In February, before the flight, Balaram said that if the Mars helicopter was successful, it would open up a whole new dimension of exploring Mars.

And he was right. The $85 million Ingenuity miniature robot is being used to demonstrate the technology that is needed for flying an aircraft in the Martian atmosphere. It will help in flying other, more advanced robotic vehicles and take us a step closer to a future human mission to the Red Planet.

In an interview with Down to Earth, Balaram said the helicopter will help with three things – reach, range and resolution. It will give scientists on Earth a chance to look at hard-to-reach places like steep cliff walls, caverns or other geological features present on Mars. While Ingenuity is not a fast-moving helicopter we’re more familiar with, he said it is capable of “forward flights at 20-30 metres per second and could cover kilometres in a day.”

However NASA “will not try this,” he said, “but inherently, helicopters have a much larger range than rovers.”

After Ingenuity’s flight, Balaram said “She’s even healthier than she was before this flight – she shook off some of her dust that had been covering the solar panels and is in fact producing even more solar energy than before.”

Balaram is an IIT-Madras alumnus and completed B.Tech, Mechanical Engineering from the institute as part of the 1975-80 batch. He then got his Master’s in Computer and System Engineering from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and later completed his PhD from the institute as well.

During his two decades with NASA, Balaram has received two NASA Awards and eight New Technology awards.

Some of the other work he has been involved in during his stint at JPL includes researching precision landing methods for Mars, as well as advanced simulation techniques for planetary Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL). This was adapted to be used by the Curiosity and Perseverance rover missions. He led the team that developed an EDL simulator adapted for use in the Mars Science Laboratory mission. He also co-developed a simulator used for planetary rover simulation.

The Mars Science Laboratory is a robotic space probe mission to Mars launched by NASA on 26 November, 2011, which successfully landed the Curiosity rover in the Gale Crater on 6 August, 2012.

Some of Balaram’s other works include a Mars aerial robot perception system, a deep-diving Venus balloon gondola concept and balloon-carried imaging sondes for deployment on Venus. He also co-developed a new type of rover named the Rocky-7 rover platform, which is currently a prototype.