Destination Mars


Written by Rachelle Haughn
AMA member helped design the first model aircraft to fly on Mars
As seen in the July 2021 issue of Model Aviation.

Bonus Video

nasa ingenuity mars helicopter extends vertically
01. NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter extends vertically into place after being rotated outward from its horizontal position on the belly of the Perseverance rover on March 29, 2021, the 38th Martian day or sol, of the mission. This image was taken by the WATSON (Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering) camera on the SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals) instrument, located at the end of the rover’s long robotic arm. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Many modelers take great pride in seeing something they have built successfully take off and fly then come in for a smooth landing. For AMA member Matt Keennon, one of his creations did just that—except its maiden flight took place on Mars.

"I would never have imagined as a kid having something that I built land on another planet," Matt, project manager for AeroVironment, Inc., said from his office in Simi Valley, California. Matt helped design, test, and build Ingenuity, a 3.96-pound helicopter that made its first flight on Mars on April 19, 2021, at 3:34 a.m. EDT.

NASA’s Ingenuity is the first aircraft in history to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet. After receiving data from the helicopter via NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover, the Ingenuity team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California confirmed the successful flight.

Matt reflected on the historic flight. "At the moment we heard that Ingenuity passed through its commanded steps of spin-up, takeoff, climb, hover, rotate 96° in yaw, descend, touchdown, and spin-down, I was completely over-the-moon ecstatic about the incredible success," he stated. "We had some high-fives, popped some confetti, and had a little toast to celebrate the moment—a once-in-a-lifetime moment for me, for sure!"

Until April 3, the helicopter, which has a 42-inch rotor span, was attached to the belly of the Perseverance rover. Perseverance was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Cape Canaveral in Brevard County, Florida, to Mars via a rocket on July 30, 2020.

"The rover landed on Mars on February 18, [2021]," Matt explained. "From then, the rover [went] through specific stations, getting itself commissioned, [etc.]." In early April, Matt shared that Perseverance had deployed all of its legs and rotated into a vertical position. On April 3, NASA posted a photo of Ingenuity on Mars’ surface. A photo taken by Ingenuity of the floor of the Jezero Crater and of two wheels of the Perseverance Mars rover was posted the next day.

After the helicopter was released, Perseverance moved away from it to complete other tasks. "This is the first time that this has been done," Matt said about the NASA mission. "It [was] several days between the day the heli dropped and the first flight." The helicopter’s battery is solar powered, so it had to stay on Mars’ surface to charge its Li-Ion batteries before the first flight could take place. In addition to the maiden flight, four preprogrammed flights for the aircraft took place, Matt added. The heli is capable of completing additional flights if needed. The batteries should provide enough energy for one 90-second flight per Martian day, according to NASA.

The helicopter was originally set to make its first flight on approximately April 14, 2021. That flight was delayed because of a "watchdog" timer issue that prevented the heli from transitioning to flight mode, according to a NASA press release. After finding a solution, NASA officials announced on April 18 that a livestream of the aircraft’s first flight would be available to view on April 19.

Initial Design Work

Long before Ingenuity’s historic flight took place, its initial design work began. AeroVironment took on the project in 2013 and Matt began working on it in 2014. He started performing technical demonstrations. "I ran a demonstration showing that the heli could generate enough thrust to operate on Mars," Matt explained. "We built a small helicopter on a test stand that would move vertically on rails. [The demonstration was] done in a JPL chamber in Mars’ gravity. That was successful—that showed it was fundamentally promising."

According to a NASA press release, Mars, also known as the Red Planet, has 1/3 the amount of gravity that Earth has. Its atmosphere is also extremely thin. Mars’ atmospheric surface pressure is 1% of Earth’s pressure.

"On Mars, it’s only like a pound and a half because of the difference in gravity," Matt stated about Ingenuity’s weight.

Finding a way to fly a small helicopter in such conditions was an obstacle that those working on Ingenuity had to overcome. "I led the effort to build subscale model helis that were 12 inches in diameter using RC model parts," Matt explained. He helped build the first versions of the aircraft. "I did the piloting for those small models. They got off the ground, but they weren’t controllable, and kind of took off and flew to the side. We eventually busted both of those. [They were] basically adapted from model helicopter designs. They weren’t engineered for Mars.

aerovironment mars ingenuity helicopter program team members
02. (L, front clockwise): AeroVironment Mars Ingenuity Helicopter Program team members Sara Langberg, Peter Zwaan, Joey Beckman, Ben Pipenberg, Jeremy Tyler, and Matt Keennon celebrate Ingenuity’s successful first flight. Photo courtesy of AeroVironment, Inc. Joey, Ben, and Jeremy are former AMA members.
this low resolution view of the floor of mars jezero crater
03. This low-resolution view of the floor of Mars’ Jezero Crater and a portion of two wheels of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover was captured by the color imager aboard the Ingenuity Mars helicopter. The image was taken on April 3, 2021, while the solar-powered rotorcraft was still beneath the rover after being deployed. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.
bill warner
04. Bill Warner (L), with his characteristic beard, hat, and shirt, waits for Matt Keennon (center) to sort out his stopwatch at the Flight Masters Scale Rubber-Powered FF event in May 1979. On the table near Matt is his Walt Mooneydesigned Peanut Scale Piper Pawnee.

"That led to another demonstration, a phase 3 prototype aircraft, design, and fabrication. That led to another demonstration (and more prototypes)."

Designing, building, and testing the helicopter was a group effort, which was led overall by JPL, Matt shared. "It’s a group project model helicopter, basically," he said.

Former AMA member and fellow micro RC aircraft designer Ben Pipenberg was the chief designer and design engineer for the Ingenuity project. "He did the most design and fabrication work. This was his first big professional project. He rose to the challenge and kind of took the lead," Matt said. "He led the mechanical team. I led the team overall in electronics and other aspects. The main part of the build was mechanical."

JPL did all of the avionics, the battery pack, the power systems, flight controls, software, navigation, radio systems, etc. Other contractors were also involved with the project.

this micro p 47d thunderbolt that matt scratch-built
05. This micro P-47D Thunderbolt that Matt scratch-built is 1/50 scale, has a 9-inch wingspan, and weighs 1.51 ounces. He enjoys creating micro-RC models.
matt hand launches his micro-rc thunderbolt
06. Matt hand launches his micro-RC Thunderbolt.

Matt noted that additional AMA members and/or model builders are employed by AeroVironment, Inc., which was hired by NASA (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) to develop the helicopter.

Before Ingenuity’s first successful flight, Matt explained what the helicopter’s objectives would be. "The most fundamental thing it needs to do is perform a flight and capture the flight log that will have the information about the gyros, servo commands, etc., during liftoff. Images are also an important aspect. The data will really help JPL/NASA to build any future helicopters and hopefully, we’ll be a part of that." He added that Ingenuity’s flights would be technology demonstrations.

Employing Skills

The building, flying, testing, and experimenting skills used for the Ingenuity project are the same skills Matt uses when enjoying his hobby. In fact, his love of model aviation is what helped him get the job at AeroVironment.

He was recruited in 1995 while at a Flight Masters Scale Rubber-Powered Free Flight (FF) event at Mile Square Regional Park in Orange County, California. He attended the contest so that he could meet up with his former middle school model aviation class teacher, Bill Warner. "I wanted to show [Bill] some things I had developed," Matt said.

In approximately 1973, Bill taught Matt how to fly and build stick-and-tissue models. "I had a really good teacher. He taught history, French, and the aviation class—basically model building and a little bit of theory. He would show his stuff, which was fantastic," Matt said of the legendary FF modeler and former Model Aviation columnist, who passed away in March 2020.

"Bill ran Indoor FF meets at our school gym in the 1970s at Paul Revere [Middle School] in Brentwood, California, and the likes of Walt Mooney and Bill Hannan would show up regularly. [It was] very humbling for us kids who were just learning this stuff," Matt recalled.

In 1995, Matt looked forward to showing Bill what he had learned and created. Since middle school, Matt had been designing his own aircraft. He also learned to fly Control Line, RC, and Slope Soaring models. In 1987, he created an RC digital transmitter for Slope Soaring that had recording and playback capabilities.

a united launch alliance atlas v rocket with nasa mars 2020
08. A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover onboard launches from Space Launch Complex 41 on July 30, 2020, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The Perseverance rover is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the Red Planet. Photo courtesy of NASA/Joel Kowsky.
these aircraft were made from hot wire cut and sanded white eps bead foam
09. These aircraft were made from hot wire-cut and sanded white EPS bead foam. The Eindeker has two 50 mAh NiCd cells running a three-channel micro RC system that Matt designed for proportional throttle, elevator, and ailerons using micro stepper motors. The wing and tail are attached with magnets. The Hellcat is similar but uses rudder instead of aileron control. Its wing and tail are also attached with magnets. It’s powered by a 3S 50 mAh NiCd. Both aircraft flew nicely after Matt built them in the late 1990s/early 2000s.
the red cosmic wind
10. The red Cosmic Wind, shown in this photo with the Eindecker and Hellcat, was a three-channel RC airplane that Matt built, but he could never get it to fly right, so it ended up being for display only. These aircraft were all built in the late 1990s/early 2000s before LiPo batteries were widely used.

While busy showing Bill his creations, Matt didn’t realize that Martyn Cowley, who was working for AeroVironment at the time, was also at the event.

"We were just milling around and mingling, and I was showing Bill Warner my stuff," Matt stated about that day. "[Martyn] kind of listened in," and asked Matt if he had an interest in aeronautics. "He encouraged me to apply for a job at AeroVironment. "So, I came in for the interview and that was quite a day." Matt remembers that he brought an RC blimp, rubber band-powered helicopters, and other aircraft to the interview. "It was pretty much a perfect fit for me."

Matt’s drive to design, build, and fly has not ceased. In the 20 years, he developed a Skyray foam profile pusher micro RC aircraft, scratch-built a P-47 Thunderbolt, and has participated in fun-flys. He enjoys flying at a local gymnasium with fellow members of the Simi Indoor Flyers. He typically flies micro Indoor FF, semiscale, scratch-built aircraft, and park flyers. The hobby is his passion, but Matt’s work on Ingenuity is likely one of his biggest achievements.

The helicopter on Mars has carbon-fiber blades and a solar panel. A small swatch of the fabric that covered the wing of Wright Flyer 1, designed and built by the Wright brothers, is wrapped around a cable that is located underneath the helicopter’s solar panel.

matt poses in his office with one of the mars helicopter engineering models
11. Matt poses in his office with one of the Mars helicopter engineering models. It is the same size and design as the helicopter that is currently on Mars.
ben jeremy and matt watch for word on ingenuity maiden flight
12. (L-R): Ben, Jeremy, and Matt watch for word on Ingenuity’s maiden flight. They are surrounded by prototypes and images of the helicopter. Photo courtesy of AeroVironment, Inc.

"I was so proud of the team here at AeroVironment for their crucial contributions, and also was super proud of the JPL team for their incredible work on the guidance, navigation, and control work," Matt stated after seeing Ingenuity’s first flight. "It was simply a perfect flight. We could not have imagined a better execution."


Mars 2020 Mission Perseverance Rover

Mars Helicopter Tech Demo

AeroVironment Inc.

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