Can we use drones for planetary exploration.

Rovers have the inherent problem of getting stuck in terrain. and have limited range. why have space agencies not considered the use of drones for exploring a planet.

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    $\begingroup$ What kind of limited range do rovers have that quadcopters etc don't suffer from? See also space.stackexchange.com/questions/17176/… which details the, well, "terrain" (actually atmospheric) challenges that drones face on Mars specifically, one of the two bodies we've landed rovers on. (The other, the Moon, quite clearly cannot support any quadcopters or other drones.) $\endgroup$ – Nathan Tuggy Oct 30 '17 at 3:16
  • $\begingroup$ @NathanTuggy Last time i checked the Moon is not a planet. and also can a rover fly over mountains? $\endgroup$ – Ahsan Oct 30 '17 at 3:49
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    $\begingroup$ The Moon is one of two significant bodies we've explored with rovers. It is therefore logically one of the candidates for replacing rover exploration with drone exploration, and the fact that it is absolutely unsuitable for the purpose is rather relevant. The link covers the dubious suitability of the other one of those two bodies, Mars, for the same replacement. If only one out of two past rover-explored bodies is even partly drone-suitable, that right there should tell you most of what you need to know: drones aren't strictly superior to rovers, and may or may not be worthwhile at all. $\endgroup$ – Nathan Tuggy Oct 30 '17 at 4:14
  • $\begingroup$ @NathanTuggy My question does not necessitate the use of a conventional propeller. a rocket propelled drone is equally acceptable (In which case it will be viable in a moon landing scenario). i don't see why you are not open to the point. all i need is some scientific base on why/why not current technology doesn't allow this? not that i am interested in promoting the use of it. $\endgroup$ – Ahsan Oct 30 '17 at 5:02
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    $\begingroup$ Be careful with terminology: "drone" in modern parlance almost always refers to aerodynamic (semi-)autonomous vehicles. It does not refer to rocket-powered surface-hopping probes. If what you mean is "vehicle that is not limited to moving on the surface but does not orbit", you'll need to clarify that by editing. (And probably clarify why you're talking about "limited range" when rockets also have unavoidable range limitations.) My link to the previous question was intended to cover some of the current technological challenges and efforts to address those. $\endgroup$ – Nathan Tuggy Oct 30 '17 at 5:16

If you are talking about flying drones, then the answer is that we haven't tried to explore a body with a suitable atmosphere yet. Mars' atmosphere is so thin that a winged drone is difficult to engineer. I believe such a thing has been proposed, but there are a lot of easier missions NASA (and other agencies) would want to try first. And Mars is the only body beyond the moon that we have even placed a rover on.

But, as for other bodies, Venus is so hot that a drone flying low enough to observe the surface well would be nearly impossible to engineer. Even stationary landers have only ever lasted a few tens of minutes.

Titan is quite cold, but gravity is low and the atmosphere is thicker than Earth's. I bet it could be made to work, but Titan is very far away and we won't be sending probes there very often.

The gas giants are probably better candidates to be explored by dirigibles, but that would be an expensive mission.


NASA have considered underwater drones for exploring Europa

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    $\begingroup$ but these are not the drones you were looking for $\endgroup$ – JCRM Oct 30 '17 at 11:09

If you're looking for flying drones, NASA is currently developing a flying scout to accompany a driving rover. This scout would have only a couple of minutes of flight time a day and take a while to recharge.

However, let's just say we are designing a similar drone for martian exploration, lets consider some of the advantages and disadvantages we have, specifically on mars.


  • Martian atmosphere is very thin (1% of earth pressure at sea level)
  • Dust kicked up by prop wash certainly isn't good for fast moving parts
  • Active propulsion flying systems (propellers, ducted fans, etc...) require constant power to stay in the air and would have huge power requirements
  • Recharging via the sun takes longer as there is less sunlight and larger solar panels mean more mass
  • A flying drone is much more likely to be completely unusable if it lands badly


  • Martian gravity is lower
  • Less atmospheric weather conditions need to be dealt with (winds weaker, no rain, etc...)

In short, I think that there are certain valuable applications for a flying drone on mars (or other planets) and they will be used but only when there's people there to pick it up if it lands on its side. Right now, putting a drone on the surface of mars would be extremely expensive and high risk to gather data that could be gathered just as well abet at a slower pace (driving rover or high resolution satellite imagery).


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