The first Mars helicopter – and the motor tech involved

02 November 2018

An artistic impression of the Mars helicopter | Credit: NASA/JPL
An artistic impression of the Mars helicopter | Credit: NASA/JPL

In 2020, NASA will send a new rover to the Red Planet, which will involve a small helicopter taking the first aerial photos of Mars. This piece from Maxon Motor describes the mission and the Switzerland-built DC motors that control the helicopter’s rotors.

During the first 30 days of the mission, the helicopter (which will land on Mars while attached to the bottom of the rover in February 2021) will undertake several autonomous flights, each lasting up to 90 seconds.

Earth will therefore receive inflight images of Mars for the first time! The Mars helicopter technology will pave the way for many future scientific and exploratory missions to Mars: similar robots, for instance, could serve as flying eyes for future rovers – exploring the surroundings and finding the best route for the rover.

Energy-efficient components for extreme conditions

For the small helicopter to fly, it of course takes an enormous engineering effort. The thin air on Mars is comparable to the conditions prevailing on Earth at an altitude of 30 kilometres. Even accounting for the reduced Martian gravity, the helicopter must therefore be particularly light (1.8 kilograms) and can only carry small batteries.

This requires that the components used are extremely energy-efficient – a requirement that naturally also applies to Maxon’s DC motors. The drives from Switzerland have proven themselves in many previous Mars missions and will also be used in JPL’s helicopter. Six DCX precision micro motors with a diameter of 10 millimetres are responsible for moving the swashplate and hence adjusting the inclination of the rotor blades, namely for controlling the vehicle.

The Flight Model DCX 10 S for control of the Mars Helicopter swashplate | Credit: Maxon Motor
The Flight Model DCX 10 S for control of the Mars Helicopter swashplate | Credit: Maxon Motor

The helicopter propulsion system is designed and built by AeroVironment under contract from JPL. Maxon engineers have been working closely with the specialists at AeroVironment who are world experts in building micro air vehicles. After a year of development work, NASA’s approval for the inclusion of the helicopter project in the Mars2020 mission is an additional motivation for the Swiss drive specialists. To quote Eugen Elmiger, CEO of Maxon Motor:."Being part of another Mars pioneering project makes us incredibly proud and happy."

Temperature measurement of Mars with the help of a DC motor

The Mars helicopter adds to several other Mars projects that Maxon is currently involved in – for example, in the European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover, which involves more than 50 drives located in the wheels, drill head, analysis unit and camera mast. This mission is also scheduled for launch in 2020.

Significantly earlier, arriving 26th November 2018, NASA's InSight lander will study the Red Planet's seismic activity and planet core temperature. A powerful and robust DC motor from Maxon drives a pile driver-type mechanism – that will burrow almost five metres deep into the Martian soil.

For more information on the 2020 Mars Mission and the technology involved, visit

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