Meet IIT alumnus Dr J (Bob) Balaram, the person who helped design NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter- Know-how Information, Alenz

Meet IIT alumnus Dr J (Bob) Balaram, the person who helped design NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter- Know-how Information, Alenz

On 19 April, NASA made historical past by changing into the primary area company to fly an plane on one other planet. Its Ingenuity helicopter took an virtually 40-second flight, rising three metres up within the air within the Jezero Crater on Mars. NASA has referred to as the occasion its Wright brothers second, because the siblings flew the world’s first aircraft in 1903. Ingenuity additionally carried with it a postage-sized piece of cloth from their plane, generally known as the Flyer, and it was hooked up to a cable below the photo voltaic panel. Whereas important, the flight was additionally experimental and never with out obstacles, as a software program challenge virtually threw a spanner within the works.

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

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

Flying three metres excessive may not seem to be a giant deal, seeing how we’re capable of obtain far higher heights on Earth. Nevertheless, flying within the Martian environment is just not a straightforward feat, as it is extremely completely different from that of the Earth.

“The primary cause is that the environment may be very, very skinny. It is about one p.c of the density of the environment at [Earth’s] sea degree. That is the equal of about 100,000 ft of altitude on Earth or 3 times the peak of Mount Everest. We do not typically fly issues that prime. Industrial airliners fly at about 35,000 ft; the Earth file for helicopter altitude at about 41,000 ft,” defined Amelia Quon, Ingenuity chamber check engineer at JPL, throughout a press convention.

As a way to fly, the helicopter needed to be small and light-weight. It weighs 1.8 kg and stands at round 0.49 metres tall. It has two pairs of sunshine, counter-rotating blades (an higher and decrease pair) that makes it straightforward for the helicopter to slice by the Martian environment and acquire altitude.

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

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

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

Balaram is just not the primary Indian origin scientist to be concerned on this Mars mission. Swati Mohan, one other Indian, was the lead operation engineer for the Perseverance rover undertaking. The rover carried the helicopter to Mars and solely not too long ago launched it to the planet.  Greater than a dozen engineers of Indian origin are concerned within the mission, which is one thing US President Joe Biden touched upon in February when he stated Indian-People are taking on the US.

As a toddler, Balaram was impressed by the Apollo landings on the moon, which sparked an curiosity in area exploration. NASA stated when an interviewer requested whether or not anybody had advised him the concept of a Mars helicopter was loopy, Balaram rapidly jumped in and stated, “Everybody. On a regular basis.”

In February, earlier than the flight, Balaram stated that if the Mars helicopter was profitable, it could open up a complete new dimension of exploring Mars.

And he was proper. The $85 million Ingenuity miniature robotic is getting used to reveal the know-how that’s wanted for flying an plane within the Martian environment. It can assist in flying different, extra superior robotic automobiles and take us a step nearer to a future human mission to the Purple Planet.

In an interview with Right down to Earth, Balaram stated the helicopter will assist with three issues – attain, vary and determination. It can give scientists on Earth an opportunity to have a look at hard-to-reach locations like steep cliff partitions, caverns or different geological options current on Mars.  Whereas Ingenuity is just not a fast-moving helicopter we’re extra conversant in, he stated it’s able to “ahead flights at 20-30 metres per second and will cowl kilometres in a day.”

Nevertheless NASA “is not going to do this,” he stated, “however inherently, helicopters have a a lot bigger vary than rovers.”

After Ingenuity’s flight, Balaram stated “She’s even more healthy than she was earlier than this flight – she shook off a few of her mud that had been overlaying the photo voltaic panels and is in reality producing much more photo voltaic vitality than earlier than.”

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter took this shot while hovering over the Martian surface on April 19, 2021, during the first instance of powered, controlled flight on another planet. Image credit: NASA

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

Balaram is an IIT-Madras alumnus and accomplished B.Tech, Mechanical Engineering from the institute as a part of the 1975-80 batch. He then bought his Grasp’s in Laptop and System Engineering from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and later accomplished his PhD from the institute as nicely.

Throughout his 20 years with NASA, Balaram has acquired two NASA Awards and eight New Know-how awards.

A few of the different work he has been concerned in throughout his stint at JPL contains researching precision touchdown strategies for Mars, in addition to superior simulation strategies for planetary Entry, Descent and Touchdown (EDL). This was tailored to be utilized by the Curiosity and Perseverance rover missions. He led the workforce that developed an EDL simulator tailored to be used within the Mars Science Laboratory mission. He additionally co-developed a simulator used for planetary rover simulation.

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

A few of Balaram’s different works embody a Mars aerial robotic notion system, a deep-diving Venus balloon gondola idea and balloon-carried imaging sondes for deployment on Venus. He additionally co-developed a brand new kind of rover named the Rocky-7 rover platform, which is at present a prototype.


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