Flight 34 was short but significant

Compared to some of the other flights of the past year, Flight 34 may not stand out. Even shorter than Ingenuity’s first flight, yesterday’s successful 18-second flight popped to just over 16 feet (5 meters), hovered, and then descended. Despite the simple nature of the journey, the team is very excited about what it means for the future of creativity.

For the past few weeks, the operations team has been working to install a major software update on board the helicopter. This update introduces major new capabilities for dexterity: avoiding hazards when descending and using digital elevation maps to aid navigation.

The Creation was developed as a technology demonstration and designed to operate on Mars in flat, smooth terrain like that found at the Wright Brothers Field. With Ingenuity moving on to explore Jezero Crater alongside the Perseverance rover, we’ve traveled through more challenging terrain than the team ever expected.

On previous flights, Ingenuity pilots needed to find airfields free of any rocks or other obstructions that could damage the craft on landing. Jezero Crater is a rocky place, so safe airfields were hard to find! With Ingenuity’s downward-facing navigation camera, this software update adds hazard avoidance when landing. During the flight, Ingenuity will determine the safest landing site. When preparing to land, Ingenuity will then turn to that specific location. This capability allows Ingenuity to land safely in rockier terrain than before, providing our pilots with many more potential landing sites.

Ingenuity’s navigation software was designed on the assumption that the car was flying over flat terrain. When the helicopter is flying over terrain such as hills, this assumption of flat ground causes Ingenuity’s navigation software to think the vehicle is yawing, causing Ingenuity to actually start yawing in an attempt to counteract the error. During long flights, navigation errors caused by rough terrain must be accounted for, requiring the team to select large airports. A new software update corrects this flat assumption by using digital elevation maps of Jezero Crater to help the navigation software distinguish between changes in terrain and vehicle movement. This increases Ingenuity’s accuracy, allowing pilots to target smaller airfields in the future.

Flight 34 may not sound like much, but it was the first of its kind with this software update. The team will use the results of this simple flight to begin testing these new capabilities, ensuring that everything works as expected on Mars. The update highlights new functionality in the Ingenuity, making it a more capable vehicle and an effective scout for perseverance. We’re all excited to see where this update will allow us to take our next Ingenuity flight!

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