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Meet IIT alumnus Dr. J (Bob) Balaram, the person who helped design NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter

On April 19, NASA made historical past by turning into the primary house company to fly an plane on one other planet. His Ingenuity helicopter flew almost 40 seconds, hovering three meters into the air in Jezero Crater on Mars. NASA referred to as the occasion its Wright Brothers second, as a result of the siblings flew the world’s first airplane in 1903. Ingenuity additionally took with it a bit of fabric the dimensions of his airplane, referred to as the Flyer, and it was connected to a cable underneath the photo voltaic panel. Though important, the flight was additionally experimental and never with out obstacles, as a software program glitch nearly threw a wrench into the works.

The Ingenuity team attaches a part to the flight model in early 2019. Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech

The Ingenuity workforce attaches an element to the flight mannequin in early 2019. Picture: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Flying three meters excessive could not look like an enormous deal, contemplating how we are able to attain a lot better heights on Earth. Nevertheless, flying within the Martian ambiance is not any small feat, as it is rather completely different from that of Earth.

“The primary purpose is that the ambiance could be very, very skinny. It’s about one p.c of the density of the ambiance at [Earth’s] sea ​​degree. It’s the equal of about 100,000 ft above sea degree on Earth or thrice the peak of Mount Everest. We do not often fly that top. Industrial airliners fly at roughly 35,000 ft; Earth’s document for helicopter altitude at about 41,000 ft, ” Explain Amelia Quon, Ingenuity Chamber Check Engineer at JPL, at a press convention.

To fly, the helicopter needed to be small and light-weight. It weighs 1.8 kg and is roughly 0.49 meters tall. It has two pairs of light-weight, counter-rotating blades (an higher and decrease pair) that permit the helicopter to simply go via the Martian ambiance and achieve altitude.

Dr. J (Bob) Balaram is the chief engineer of the Ingenuity helicopter.  Image Credit: NASA / JPL

Dr. J (Bob) Balaram is the chief engineer of the Ingenuity helicopter. Picture Credit score: NASA / JPL

This flight wouldn’t have been potential with out the workforce engaged on the Perseverance rover, and particularly, the Ingenuity helicopter. The engineer of Indian origin, Dr J (Bob) Balaram, is the chief engineer and designer of this undertaking. He works within the Mobility and Robotic Methods Division of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and has labored at NASA for 20 years.

Balaram will not be the primary scientist of Indian origin to be concerned on this mission to Mars. Swati Mohan, one other Indian, was the lead operations engineer for the Perseverance rover undertaking. The rover transported the helicopter to Mars and solely not too long ago launched it to the planet. Greater than a dozen engineers of Indian descent are concerned within the mission, which US President Joe Biden referred to in February when he stated the Indo-People had been taking management of the USA.

As a baby, Balaram was impressed by Apollo’s moon landings, which sparked an curiosity in house exploration. NASA mentionned when an interviewer requested if anybody advised him the concept of ​​a helicopter on Mars was loopy, Balaram rapidly jumped in and stated, “Everybody. On a regular basis.”

In February, earlier than the flight, Balaram stated if the Mars helicopter was profitable, it will open up an entire new dimension of Mars exploration.

And he was proper. The $ 85 million Ingenuity miniature robotic is used to show the expertise wanted to fly an airplane within the Martian ambiance. This may assist us pilot different extra superior robotic autos and convey us nearer to a future human mission to the Pink Planet.

In an interview with Down to earth, Balaram stated the helicopter will assist with three issues: vary, vary and backbone. This may give scientists on Earth an opportunity to have a look at hard-to-reach locations like steep cliff faces, caves, or different geological options discovered on Mars. Though Ingenuity will not be a quick helicopter we’re extra aware of, it stated it was capable of “fly ahead at 20-30 meters per second and will cowl miles in a day”.

Nevertheless, NASA “will not do this,” he stated, “however by nature helicopters have a a lot wider vary than rovers.”

After Ingenuity’s flight, Balaram stated: “She remains to be more healthy than she was earlier than this flight – she shook off a few of her mud that coated photo voltaic panels and truly produced much more photo voltaic power than earlier than. “

NASA's Ingenuity Mars helicopter took this photo while hovering over the Martian surface on April 19, 2021, during the first instance of powered and controlled flight over another planet.  Image Credit: NASA

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter took this picture whereas hovering over the Martian floor on April 19, 2021, through the first occasion of powered and managed flight over one other planet. Picture Credit score: NASA

Balaram is an alumnus of IIT-Madras and has accomplished B.Tech, mechanical engineering from the institute underneath lot 1975-80. He then obtained his grasp’s diploma in pc and methods engineering from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, after which accomplished his doctorate on the institute.

Throughout his twenty years with NASA, Balaram has received two NASA Awards and eight New Know-how Awards.

A number of the different work he was concerned in whereas at JPL included researching precision touchdown strategies for Mars, in addition to superior simulation methods for planetary entry, descent, and touchdown (EDL). This has been tailored to be used by the Curiosity and Perseverance rover missions. He led the workforce that developed an EDL simulator appropriate to be used within the Mars Science Laboratory mission. He additionally co-developed a simulator used for the simulation of planetary rovers.

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

A few of Balaram’s different work features a Mars aerial robotic notion system, a deep-diving Venus balloon gondola idea, and balloon-borne imaging probes for deployment to Venus. He additionally co-developed a brand new sort of rover referred to as the Rocky-7 rover platform, which is at present a prototype.

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