Meet IIT-Madras Alumnus, the scientist behind NASA’s Mars Ingenuity helicopter

NASA on Monday marked a Wright Brothers moment in the 21st century by sending its miniature Ingenuity robotic helicopter to hum above the surface of Mars for nearly 40 seconds, marking the first controlled, powered flight of an aircraft to another planet. Officials at the US space agency hailed the brief flight of the 4-pound (1.8 kg) rotorcraft as an achievement that would help pave the way for a new mode of aerial exploration on Mars and other destinations in the system. solar, such as Venus. and the moon of Saturn Titan. Significantly, an Indian was the originator of the historic “Wright Brothers” moment and acted as the chief engineer and designer of the Ingenuity helicopter.

Dr J (Bob) Balaram, Indo-American, who grew up in South India in the 1960s, has worked at NASA for 20 years and works in the Mobility & Robotic Systems department of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

As a child, Balaram would always be fascinated by the cosmic world and space which were more bitten by the Apollo Moon mission. He said he “swallowed up” everything that had been said about the lunar mission on the radio. Balaram completed his B.Tech in Mechanical Engineer from IIT, Madras and belongs to lot 1975-80. He eventually moved on to complete his Masters in Computer and Systems Engineering from the American Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and also completed his PhD in Computer and Systems Engineering from the same institute.

During his time at JPL, Balaram was actively engaged in the development of telerobotics technology for Mars Rovers, planetary balloon aerobot systems and high fidelity multi-mission spacecraft simulators for the entry, descent and landing and surface mobility, according to NASA. . It even received two NASA awards and eight new technology awards, according to reports. His skills helped develop aerobot (air robot) perception systems on Mars, a deep-diving Venus balloon gondola concept, and balloon-borne imaging probes for deployment to Venus. He also co-developed a new type of rover, which is currently a prototype, called the Rocky-7 rover platform.

Balaram, a robotic technologist had attended a professional conference in the 1990s, where Stanford professor Ilan Kroo spoke of a “ mesicopter – a miniature airborne vehicle for Earth applications that was funded as a proposal from NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts ”.

It was the first time Balaram had ever thought of using one on Mars. He suggested a joint proposal with Stanford for a NASA research ad submission and recruited AeroVironment, a small company from Simi Valley, Calif., As reported by ANI.

In a previous NASA interview, an interviewer asked Balaram if people thought the idea of ​​Mars ingenuity was crazy, to which he said, “Everyone. All the time.”

After Ingenuity’s successful flight in February, Balaram said: “She is still healthier than she was before this flight – she shook off some of her dust that covered the solar panels and in fact still produces more solar energy than before. ”

Speaking to reporters, project manager Mimi Aung said, “Bob is the inventor of our helicopter on Mars. He innovated the design and delivered that vision as Chief Engineer through all phases of design, development and testing.

Balaram becomes the second leading Indian face in NASA’s exploration of Mars after Dr. Swati Mohan, the Indo-American who led the development of the attitude control and landing system for the Mars rover.

(with contributions from agencies)

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