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NASA's Mars helicopter has San Diego brains

Posted at 4:55 PM, Feb 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-17 20:28:29-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- From the minds of San Diegans to the craters of Mars.

NASA's Perseverance rover is scheduled to land on the Red Planet on Thursday, with San Diegans playing an integral role in the key part of the mission.

"This is the Wright Brothers moment," said Dev Singh, who directs robotics, drones and intelligent machines at San Diego-based Qualcomm. "It is the future, it's uncharted territory and doing something of making history right here, which has a capability to shape the future."

Singh's team designed the processor serving as the brains behind the most innovative part of the mission - fly the small helicopter the rover is transporting to Mars - called the Ingenuity. It'd be the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.

"Real time is pretty much impossible. You're connecting an autonomous machine on a planet where the communication lag between any signal is anywhere between 3 minutes to 22 minutes away," Singh said.

The Ingenuity will perform up to five test flights within 30 Martian days of landing. That's equal to 31 Earth days.

Singh said the Qualcomm technology would prevent the helicopter from drifting away, or crashing into a mountain during the delay.

"It has a downward facing camera, so it's looking at the features of the planet Mars and maintaining the distance from the ground," he said.

NASA says a successful flight could pave the way for accessing new viewpoints, future recon missions, and even carrying necessary payloads from one location to another.

And if it works, Singh said his team would celebrate virtually, 300 million miles away.