The NASA Mars Ingenuity drone was almost lost due to a camera error and it gives us an interesting insight into how it navigates the surface of the Red Planet.
Basically, the drone uses what is called an inertial measurement unit (IMU). It helps the drone collect data to position itself within a given space including how it is interacting in terms of speed, etc. inside of that space. This isn’t the only thing the Ingenuity relies upon, however, and it is the second element – Ingenuity’s downward-looking navcams – that provided the failure in this case. Capable of taking 30 images per second of the Martian surface, these cameras then feed that data into Ingenuity’s navigation system. Among the data that the system interprets is the timestamp of the photo which it then uses to predict what’s coming next based on other data. If this prediction is wrong it corrects using the new images. As can be readily deciphered from this really simple explanation of an otherwise highly technical instrument, any sort of delay or failure in the transmission of these images from the downward-looking navcams could skew data. It seems that is what happened.
From NASA’s blog post about the incident:
“Approximately 54 seconds into the flight, a glitch occurred in the pipeline of images being delivered by the navigation camera. This glitch caused a single image to be lost, but more importantly, it resulted in all later navigation images being delivered with inaccurate timestamps. From this point on, each time the navigation algorithm performed a correction based on a navigation image, it was operating on the basis of incorrect information about when the image was taken. The resulting inconsistencies significantly degraded the information used to fly the helicopter, leading to estimates being constantly “corrected” to account for phantom errors. Large oscillations ensued.”
Even though it encountered this anomaly, the Ingenuity was saved by a design decision to not use the images from the downward-looking navcams when descending for landing and this proved to be an excellent choice as the drone landed within 16 feet of its intended location, NASA writes.
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