While the world watched with anticipation as the United States took its turn touching down on a planet millions of miles away, some San Diego engineers with a little more vested interest than most were watching with bated breath.
"This is really exciting for me, of course, because I was involved with the project, my team was involved with the project. Qualcomm product is powering this thing up there. But nonetheless, it's an important day for humanity as well," said Dev Singh, Qualcomm's General Manager for Robotics.
NASA completed the first step of its mission to Mars on Thursday when the Perseverance Rover touched down on the red planet, a feat not to be downplayed as many U.S. spacecraft that came before it never made it past the treacherous descent.
And its successful landing means another first for mankind -- the first helicopter on Mars -- because inside the belly of the car-sized rover was Ingenuity, a four-pound robotic helicopter powered by San Diego-based Qualcomm's Snapdragon Flight platform.
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"History [is] being made today, it’s the Wright Brothers moment, I call that because this is the first time a powered flight is going to be taking place other than on planet Earth," Singh said. "This is something that has never been done."
Over the next 30 days, while the Perseverance Rover is collecting rock samples to determine if there is microscopic life billions of years old on Mars, Ingenuity will be performing what NASA calls "technology demonstrations," which will test the power of flight.
“This is the most meaningful part of the project [for us] because this time around the processor is the main heart and the main brain of the Ingenuity. It is doing the flight, it is doing the autonomous routines of the computer vision,” Singh said.
The Qualcomm processor is made of billions of tiny transistors, which send signals to Ingenuity to help it make decisions. When NASA engineers send it instructions, there's not much more they can do; Ingenuity's "brain" needs to do the rest from space.
"It's a fully autonomous mission," Singh said.
Qualcomm's processor uses algorithms to help Ingenuity measure the distance between itself and Mars' surface, then tells it how fast it needs to rotate its propellers to keep it up in the atmosphere.
It's no easy feat -- the aircraft will need to power through thin Martian air. Mars has about a third of Earth's gravity but its atmosphere is just 1% as thick, so it's much harder to generate lift, according to NASA.
Ingenuity's entire mission on Mars is to prove that it's possible.
And Singh believes in Ingenuity.
"This is our DNA. Day in and day out this is what we do. We put cutting edge innovative products in people's hands that change lives and changes society,” Sign said. “This is a mission that is going to change the future of exploration and the future of humanity as well."
Ingenuity's flight tests are expected to begin in Spring 2021. For its first flight, Ingenuity will pull a few feet from the ground and hover for about 20 to 30 seconds before landing back on Mars.
When that moment happens, it will be history made.