Space and the ultimate integration of drones

Drones are indispensable in space exploration, overcoming challenges like Earth’s thin atmosphere. NASA employs drones for imaging, inspections, and mapping, while India pioneers Synthetic Aperture Radar technology for satellites and drones.

As humanity endeavours to extend its reach beyond the boundaries of Earth, the imperative for sophisticated technologies to navigate and investigate the cosmos becomes increasingly pronounced. In this context, drones have emerged as indispensable instruments for unravelling the mysteries of space. From executing intricate surveys of distant celestial bodies to facilitating intricate repairs on orbiting spacecraft, drone technology stands as a pivotal force driving the frontiers of space exploration.

Although drones designed for use on Earth are unsuitable for space due to the absence of air, NASA has developed alternative types of drones that propel themselves through jets of oxygen gas or water vapour. These specialized drones are intended for operation in the vacuum of space, enabling tasks such as data collection on distant planets and asteroids, as well as spacecraft repairs and maintenance. However, despite advancements in space drone technology, there remain constraints on their capabilities, notably stemming from the thin atmosphere at high altitudes on Earth.


Drones rely on propellers that utilize air density to generate lift, effectively pushing air downward to maintain their altitude. Consequently, drones are unable to ascend into space, as it lies beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

Nevertheless, ongoing technological advancements are expanding the capabilities of drones, driven by the efforts of scientists and engineers. There is potential for drones to venture into the outer regions of our solar system in the future, as these boundaries continue to be pushed.

NASA and the future of drone technology

Drones, once seen primarily as recreational gadgets, have evolved into essential tools with practical applications at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. These unmanned aircraft systems are now employed for challenging and potentially hazardous tasks, offering time and cost savings.

While many may associate drones with recreational use, such as flying toys controlled by children, NASA’s skilled drone pilots are exploring their potential for practical purposes. According to Jason Peterson, NASA’s range and aviation operations manager at Stennis, drone technology is being leveraged to enhance efficiency, cut expenses, and most importantly, minimize risks to personnel.

With advancements in lightweight cameras and sensors, drones have become highly adaptable flying instruments with various capabilities. NASA utilizes drones for tasks such as aerial imaging, inspections, and mapping, demonstrating their versatility and effectiveness in a range of scenarios.

At Stennis Space Center, drones were recently used to capture imagery of the latest RS-25 test conducted on February 24. During the test, the drone streamed live video footage, including the ground disbursement of liquid oxygen. This video footage provides valuable insights for future test planning by revealing the behaviour of oxygen at maximum discharge. Additionally, drones at Stennis are utilised to monitor construction progress and gather data for historical reference. The aerial imagery obtained by these drones offers a high-quality digital record with timestamps. For example, in the past year, a drone captured 4K imagery of NASA’s Space Launch System core stage fire test on the B-2 Test Stand, which was the most powerful test at Stennis in over 40 years. This high-resolution imagery provided a detailed view of the test compared to standard ground cameras.

Moreover, drones deployed at Stennis and NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans were employed to capture imagery of roof damage following Hurricanes Zeta and Ida. This aerial imagery facilitated a quick assessment of the damage by centre leadership, allowing them to promptly relay information to NASA Headquarters in Washington. Using drones for inspections in inaccessible areas significantly reduces the time required for inspections.

Drones also enhance safety by providing close-up views of potentially hazardous situations, offering unique capabilities that mitigate risks.

Jason Peterson, of NASA’s Stennis Space Center, highlighted an incident involving damage to an array on a high-frequency antenna. The drone enabled a safe inspection of the antenna, identification of the issue, and ordering of necessary parts. This approach saved approximately $10,000, eliminated the risk of personnel climbing the tower, and minimised downtime.

Besides NASA, Innovative Imaging and Research also employs drones at Stennis, each equipped with specific payloads and software for diverse applications. Peterson foresees drones playing a larger role in operations and maintenance, particularly with expanded payloads and advancements in technology, such as electro-optical/infrared operations for inspecting buildings and critical infrastructure.

As NASA integrates drone mapping operations with existing software, future scanning capabilities are expected to generate real-time 2D or 3D maps and models with accuracies as precise as two centimetres. This capability promises time and cost savings compared to traditional surveying methods.

Gamma Rotorcraft for Analog Planetary Environments (GRAPE) mission 

The Gamma Rotorcraft for Analog Planetary Environments (GRAPE) mission concept involves a drone-based instrument designed to autonomously search for signs of life on other planets, eliminating the need for human guidance. This initiative aims to advance the development of autonomous drone platforms for detecting life-related compounds on Mars and beyond.

Drone-based measurement platforms have proven to be valuable tools in planetary exploration and are already in use on Mars. For instance, Ingenuity, a camera-equipped helicopter deployed as part of the Perseverance rover mission, has provided crucial insights into the operation of scouting drones on the Red Planet, offering valuable lessons for future missions. Additionally, a quadcopter equipped with a comprehensive suite of scientific instruments is scheduled to travel to Saturn’s moon Titan as part of the Dragonfly mission set to launch in 2026.

The acquisition of airborne visual imaging, gamma-ray, and neutron spectroscopy data aims to explore the chemistry of life on other planets. These techniques facilitate the measurement of the chemical composition of rocks, thereby aiding in identifying potential sites for signs of life during planetary exploration missions.

The development of an autonomous, drone-based neutron spectroscopy instrument capable of adapting to its surroundings and independently acquiring biosignature information represents a significant stride in planetary exploration. Such an instrument would possess the ability to make informed decisions regarding target selection, thereby substantially improving the efficiency of data acquisition during planetary missions without relying on continuous human intervention. The expedition to Devon Island was motivated by the objective of comparing sample-site selections based on drone-derived imagery against those made by ground-based geologists. Notably, the sampling locations identified on the ground closely resembled those identified using drone data. This underscores the potential for utilizing orbital data exclusively and potentially eliminating the need for human intervention in image assessment, thereby fostering a more autonomous system.

Although microbial life has yet to be discovered on another planet, the utilization of autonomous drones holds promise for expediting this discovery.

India’s Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) design
In a groundbreaking achievement for India, the space tech start-up GalaxEye Space has introduced its advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) technology, designed for deployment not only on its satellite systems but also on aerial drones currently under development. This SAR system boasts the capability to deliver highly detailed and high-resolution imaging, even in adverse weather conditions such as rain or cloud cover, as stated by the company in a recent announcement. With this development, the Bengaluru-based company has become the first private entity in the country to successfully innovate and demonstrate SAR technology, joining the ranks of esteemed organizations like the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).

According to Suyash Singh, Co-founder & CEO of GalaxEye Space, testing of the SAR sensor was concluded in December last year, following which the decision was made to extend its application to aerial drones due to significant interest in the field. This represents a significant milestone in the company’s journey towards satellite development. GalaxEye has received requests from various drone service providers to adapt SAR technology for aerial mapping purposes. The versatility of this technology enables its utilization across diverse sectors including insurance, surveillance, precision agriculture, property tax estimation, and monitoring of utilities such as gas pipelines and transmission lines. Typically, most drone companies rely on still or video cameras for similar tasks.

Developed internally, the fusion technology aims to revolutionize space-based data collection by enabling satellite constellations to perform all-weather imaging, overcoming atmospheric limitations that affect traditional single-sensor satellites. This technology can produce highly detailed images through a compact satellite constellation, achieving global coverage within a 12-hour timeframe.

Sudheer Kumar, Director of the Capacity Building Office at ISRO, commended GalaxEye’s rapid progress and successful demonstration of challenging technologies like Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR). The company is poised to launch its inaugural satellite, named the Drishti Mission, by mid-2024. This satellite is touted to be India’s first and the world’s highest-resolution multi-sensor imaging satellite.

Originally incubated at IIT-Madras, GalaxEye has forged strategic partnerships and secured commercial contracts with prominent organizations, including the US-based space software provider Antaris, XDLINX Labs, Ananth Technologies, and Dassault Systèmes.
In summary, the integration of drone technology into space exploration promises unprecedented advancements. From conducting surveys and repairs to autonomous search for signs of life on distant planets, drones revolutionize the frontiers of space discovery. NASA’s initiatives at the Stennis Space Center and India’s breakthroughs in Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) technology underscore the transformative potential of drones. With ongoing innovations and global collaboration, drones are poised to accelerate our understanding of the cosmos, paving the way for groundbreaking discoveries in planetary exploration.

(Views expressed in the article are of author’s own and do not reflect the editorial stance of Business Upturn)