Meet IIT-Madras Alumnus, the Scientist behind NASA's Mars Ingenuity Helicopter

Buzz Staff
·3-min read

NASA scored a 21st-century Wright Brothers moment on Monday as it sent its miniature robot helicopter Ingenuity buzzing above the surface of Mars for nearly 40 seconds, marking the first powered controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet. Officials at the U.S. 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 solar system, such as Venus and Saturn’s moon Titan. Significantly, an Indian man was behind the historic ‘Wright Brothers’ moment and acted as the chief engineer and designer of the Ingenuity helicopter.

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

As a child, Balaram would always be fascinated by the cosmic world and space that was more piqued by the Apollo Moon mission. He said he “gobbled up” all that was told about the moon mission on the radio. Balaram completed his B.Tech in Mechanical Engineer from IIT, Madras and belongs to the batch 1975-80. He eventually moved onto to complete his MSc in Computer and System Engineering from America’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and also completed his PhD in Computer and Systems Engineering from the same institute.

During his stint at JPL, Balaram has been actively engaged in the area of telerobotics technology development for Mars Rovers, planetary balloon aerobot systems, and multi-mission, high-fidelity Spacecraft simulators for Entry, Descent and Landing and Surface Mobility, according to NASA. He has gone on to even receive two NASA Awards and eight New Technology award, according to reports. His skills have helped in developing Mars aerobot (aerial robot) perception systems, a deep-diving Venus balloon gondola concept, and balloon-carried imaging sondes for deployment at Venus. He has also co-developed a new type of rover, which is currently a prototype, named the Rocky-7 rover platform.

Balaram, a robotics technologist had attended a professional conference back in the 1990s, where Stanford professor Ilan Kroo spoke about a ‘mesicopter — a miniature airborne vehicle for Earth applications that was funded as a NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts proposal’.

This was the first time when Balaram was led to think about using one on Mars. He suggested a joint proposal with Stanford for a NASA Research Announcement submission and recruited AeroVironment, a small company in Simi Valley, California, as reported by ANI.

In an earlier interview of NASA, an interviewer had asked Balaram whether people thought that 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’s even healthier than she was before this flight – she shook off some of her dust that had been covering the solar panels and is in fact producing even more solar energy than before.”

Speaking to reporters, the project manager Mimi Aung said, “Bob is the inventor of our Mars Helicopter. He innovated the design and followed up on that vision to its fruition as a chief engineer through all phases of design, development and test.”

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

(with inputs from agencies)

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