Snapdragon on Mars: detailing its role in space exploration

“The Mars 2020 mission was a milestone not only for technology and science, but also for humanity in general.” That’s how Qualcomm’s directors describe one of the most daring projects in recent years. Via a virtual conference, TecMundo was invited to talk to two professionals who participated directly in this entire technical plan.

Although the Perseverance rover landed on Mars on Feb. 18, the research and studies to make this possible have been going on for years. Since mid-2013, the details of the task began to be conceived not only by NASA, but also by scientists around the world.

The global effort to bring the robot to the red planet is focused on looking for signs of ancient life and collecting soil samples for future shipment to Earth. The seven-month space journey was a relief for those involved in the project.

“Everything about the Mars 2020 mission was a big challenge. But collaboration between the US government, NASA and Qualcomm was key to making the mission a success, ”said Chris Pruetting, Qualcomm’s senior director of Business Development for Government Technologies.

The company participated in the activity of providing the technology – primarily the chip – for the Ingenuity, a helicopter traveling in conjunction with Perseverance. The flying object will make 5 test flights on Mars to better analyze and understand the planet’s atmosphere.

“We have to do these tests to find out whether the helicopter does not get stuck in the sand, for example. We’ve practiced so it can even get into caves, but we need to put that into practice, ”said Dev Singh, Director of Business Development in Autonomous Robotics, Drones and Intelligent Machines at Qualcomm.

Tests and discussions

Chris and Dev reveal that joining the project is a source of great pride and a unique experience. However, the experiment was not only conducted for animation; on the contrary, a lot of hard work was needed.

They say the process was complex and that in order to achieve the result a lot of attention has been paid to the quality of the materials used. For example, Dev recalls that the radiation from Mars was one of the focal points of the various teams of engineers.

“In 2019, we conducted many flight tests in rooms that simulate the atmosphere of Mars. They were essential for us to understand some of the issues, such as communication, which is not the same as in the Earth’s environment, ” Chris explains.

Despite testing over the past two years, Qualcomm began work on the equipment around 2014. The processor chosen to equip Ingenuity was the Snapdragon 801, familiar to those with a Samsung Galaxy S5, Moto X or Sony Xperia Z3.

However, the version integrated with the helicopter has been modified to meet space requirements. For example, the platform is more energy-efficient to show that it is possible to make a guided flight from more than 60 million kilometers away.

“Technology was at the heart of everything we did and it’s amazing how the project has evolved over the past six years. In that sense, working with JPL (NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) was essential,” Chris recalls.

Future

Qualcomm’s executives were sincere and said they were taking it one step at a time; therefore they did not talk about planned missions for the coming years.

“This involves a lot of energy and even here on Earth we already have real problems with drones operating on farms, for example,” said Chris. “This is our mission now, but there are many more to come,” Dev promised.

Nothing was said about when the first flight with Ingenuity should take place, and both explained that the issue will be evaluated in the next 30 days. As to why there will only be 5 flights, Dev argued that this is a demonstration mission and making a flight would be a big step forward.

Helicopter ingenuity

Finally, they both went back to glorifying the historical fact that we are currently experiencing and how it will affect the world. Chris defended that the trend is that everything will become cheaper in the future and that drones, in particular, will be very useful parts in the daily lives of billions of people.

For enthusiasts, Dev said Ingenuity resembles the 1997 Sojourner rover. “If all goes well, we’ll also change the way space exploration is done,” he concluded.

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