The European Space Agency (ESA) awarded Sener Aeroespacial the AERIAL project to design an unmanned aerial vehicle or drone capable of flying in the low density, pressure, and temperature of the Martian atmosphere. AERIAL is the European proposal to conquer the Martian skies by increasing and improving the capabilities of classic ground exploration vehicles (rover) and avoiding dealing with the complicated terrain they face in their quest to search for scientific data.
Sener Aeroespacial is the company responsible for spearheading the project, in concert with Aerdron. Sener Aeroespacial has extensive experience in the design, integration, and validation of space systems, including on-board electronics, navigation and control algorithms, communications systems, optical equipment, and robotic actuators (mechatronics). It also has experts in fluid dynamics to design the aerodynamic profiles of the Martian blades. Sener Aeroespacial has already taken part in the development of Martian vehicles, such as the Perseverance rover for NASA's Mars2020 mission, currently operating on the Martian surface, and the Curiosity rover for NASA's MSL mission, and it has also contributed technology to ESA's ExoMars 2016 and 2022 missions.
Aerdron, a Spanish company involved in the design and manufacture of unmanned aerial vehicles, will develop a drone prototype with six-propellers with a maximum take-off weight of 5kg that will be capable of flying in an environment that reproduces the complex thermal and pressure conditions of Mars.
Guillermo Rodríguez, AERIAL project manager at Sener Aeroespacial, says that "AERIAL is a very ambitious project within the framework of European collaboration for the European Space Agency, one that will enhance the technologies and knowledge of the Spanish space industry, driving it toward new limits. This project will serve to demonstrate our industry's ability to develop highly sophisticated devices that are capable of flying in the atmosphere of another planet."
Marcos Alazraki Benveniste, president of Aerdron, noted, "Drones will play a very important role in the future of space exploration, since they can reach places, such as Martian volcanoes, that rovers cannot. Drones could also be used to prospect for water and minerals, as well as to fabricate infrastructures in space."
Flying on Mars using rotary wings poses a technological challenge due to the harsh environmental conditions: very light atmosphere with a density 100x lower than Earth's, extreme temperatures with swings of 70°C or more, and radiation 700x higher than on Earth. The biggest technological challenges will be generating enough thrust to lift the 5kg mass, while minimizing the heat generated by the propulsion system and developing an autonomous navigation system that does not rely on GPS, which is not present on our neighboring planet.
The drone will be designed to take off from a platform on the rover, fly around to a range of 1km and land back on the same platform. The rover would swap out and charge the battery.
The tests will be done at the Mars Simulation Laboratory in Denmark, whose atmospheric chamber has been especially designed to simulate the environmental conditions and dusty surface of Mars.
This project is in keeping with ESA's long history of developing Mars missions (such as Mars Express 2003 and Exodus 2016 and 2022) and applications for planetary exploration.