J (Bob) Balaram, meet the chief engineer of Nasa's Ingenuity Mars helicopter

Updated on Apr 20, 2021 08:11 AM IST

J (Bob) Balaram revealed in March that Ingenuity Mars helicopter is carrying a small piece of cloth that covered one of the wings of the Wright brothers' first aircraft

J (Bob) Balaram is the chief engineer behind NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter.(Photo courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
J (Bob) Balaram is the chief engineer behind NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter.(Photo courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
By | Written by Kanishka Sarkar

National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (Nasa’s) Ingenuity Mars helicopter, designed by IIT alumnus J (Bob) Balaram, successfully flew early Monday becoming the first powered and controlled flight on another planet. The US space agency hailed the achievement as "our Wright brothers moment." Bob Balaram, Ingenuity's chief engineer, said the helicopter was in fine fettle following the maiden run, according to news agency AFP. "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," he said.

The four-pound (1.8 kilogram) rotorcraft lifted off at 3:34am Eastern Time (0734GMT), rose to a height of 10 feet (three meters), swiveled its tissue-box-sized body, swayed in a gentle Martian breeze and then touched down after 39.1 seconds. Data and images from the flight were transmitted 173 million miles (278 million kilometers) back to Earth where they were received by Nasa's array of ground antennas and processed almost three-and-a-half hours later.


The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter was built by Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which also manages this technology demonstration project for Nasa headquarters, the US space agency said. J (Bob) Balaram, the chief engineer behind the helicopter sent to Mars, is the principal member of technical staff at the Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory where he is with the Mobility and Robotic Systems section. Balaram, the recipient of two Nasa Awards and eight New Technology awards, has led design teams for developing Mars aerobot (aerial robot) perception systems, a deep-diving Venus balloon gondola concept, and balloon-carried imaging sondes for deployment at Venus, according to the space agency.

As a child, Bob Balaram was inspired by the Apollo Moon landings as he developed an interest in space exploration, Nasa said, and revealed that even before an interviewer finished the question about Mars helicopter, "Did anyone ever tell you this was a crazy idea?" Bob Balaram jumped in to say, "Everyone. All the time."

Nasa originally planned the flight for April 11 but postponed it over a software glitch that was identified during a planned high-speed test of the aircraft's rotors. The issue was later resolved through a coding tweak.

“If it's (the Mars chopper) successful, however, it "basically opens up a whole new dimension of exploring Mars," Balaram said in February. In March, Balaram revealed for the first time that Ingenuity is carrying a small piece of cloth that covered one of the wings of the Wright brothers' first aircraft that achieved the first powered flight on Earth at Kitty Hawk in 1903, to pay tribute to the milestone, AFP reported.

(With agency inputs)

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