Taking a page from NASA's rocket powered landing craft from it most recent Mars landing mission, the European Space Agency is showing off a quadcopter that the organization says can steer itself to smoothly lower a rover onto a safe patch of the rocky Martian surface.
The ESA said its dropship, known as the StarTiger's Dropter is indeed a customized quadcopter drone that uses a GPS, camera and inertial systems to fly into position, where it then switches to vision-based navigation supplemented by a laser range-finder and barometer to lower and land a rover autonomously.
StarTiger or the longwinded version, Standing for 'Space Technology Advancements by Resourceful, Targeted and Innovative Groups of Experts and Researchers' is the ESA's overarching research and development arm which seeks to develop all manner of what it calls breakthrough technologies.
This dropter was a proof of concept and the group said such a system is now available for follow-on development by planetary missions to come.
The ESA said the concepts behind the dropter came from NASA which used what it called a rocket-powered SkyCrane to lower its Curiosity rover to the Mars surface in 2012. It was made famous as part of NASA's "Curiosity's Seven Minutes of Terror" video.
Its unclear how big a dropcopter would need to be to land something the size (or larger) of Curiosity. The NASA flight system that took Curiosity on its wild ride weighed a little over 8,500lbs. The Curiosity rover weighs almost 2,000lbs.