Watch Italian astronaut Roberto Vittori pilot a drone set for Mars

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Drones are primarily thought of as flying in the sky, where they’re far enough over our heads to avoid objects but low enough to still see them. Occasionally, chatter of underwater drones comes up. But drones in space are becoming a hot topic these days. And space explorers like Italian astronaut Roberto Vittori are getting their hands on them.

General Roberto Vittori, who flew three spaceflights including the penultimate mission of the American Space Shuttle Program in 2011 (he was the last non-American to fly aboard the Shuttle), is now making a name for himself with not just space flights, but flights a lot closer to earth: drone flights.

General Roberto Vittori, who is an Italian Air Force officer and ESA astronaut, co-piloted a Skycopter space drone as part of a fancy, reception-type event earlier this year to celebrate Skypersonic’s involvement in the NASA-simulated Mars Mission. Skypersonic is a Detroit-based dronemaker most famous for its Skycopter drone, which has a tiltable video camera designed to work in extreme conditions and ultra-tight spaces.

At a training session in Italy to help ESA astronaut Roberto Vittori prepare for the drone demonstration flight at LoveITDetroit, Skypersonic chief pilot Giuliano Golfieri (right) guides Vittori in using the Skycopter drone’s virtual piloting goggles. Photo courtesy of Skypersonic.

Sure, Vittori’s piloting is put on public display for just a drone flight at a gala-esque party, but the whole thing is pretty delightful. And it’s a signal that serious movers and shakers in the broader aerospace industry have their eye on drones. In fact, alongside General Roberto Vittori’s live drone flight at the gala, he joined Skypersonic Founder and CEO Giuseppe Santangelo; Simonetta Di Pippo, an Italian astrophysicist and former director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA); and Vicky Selva, executive director of Michigan Defense Center in a panel discussion about drones and space.

Watch Vittori testing Skypersonic space drone technology — which was done ahead of the reception — in a roughly three-minute long video created by Skypersonic, here:

The NASA-simulated Mars Mission is a one-year, analog mission designed to simulate life on Mars (or any other distant world in theory). In 2021, Skypersonic company signed a five-year contract with NASA to provide drone and rover software, hardware and support to that NASA-simulated Mars mission. As part of that endeavor, Skypersonic last month announced that it successfully validated its technology during 15 days of testing on Mt. Etna, an active volcano in Sicily whose landscape is similar to Martian geology.

Skypersonic’s drone tech stands out because — whereas most drones cannot be piloted without connecting to the GPS network — Skycopter uses technology that is able to control and track the drone in locations where GPS is not available, you know, like Mars.

General Roberto Vittori
At a training session in Italy to help ESA astronaut Roberto Vittori prepare for the drone demonstration flight at LoveITDetroit, Skypersonic chief pilot Giuliano Golfieri (left) coaches Vittori in remotely piloting the Skycopter drone. Photo courtesy of Skypersonic.

Why astronauts are interested in drones

Astronauts, rocket scientists, aerospace engineers and a myriad of other folks who are primarily focused on space are also incorporating drones into their work with increasing frequency. These days, some of that is certainly because drones are set to be a key technology used in NASA’s simulated Mars mission.

But NASA has long been interested in drones long before things like pizza delivery drones were on people’s minds. Even when simply flying on earth, drones have been able to provide insights into what life beyond earth might be like, while also better understanding little-known environments on our own planet. For example, in the mid-2010s, NASA used drones to explore volcanoes with a goal of improving the accuracy of ash fall measurements. NASA has also invested money in building drones that could fly off Earth for jobs such as navigating the corridors of a space station.

Other interesting examples of astronauts colliding with drones include NASA astronaut Scott Parazynski’s invention of a joystick that puts all the primary drone fight controls into a single hand. The purpose of that? To revolutionize robotic surgery.

Over at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, JPL robotics engineers have experimented with Shapeshifter, a swarm of small robots that can morph into different vehicles to explore alien worlds, just to name a few.

NASA’s stake in UTM

And perhaps most influential to the drone industry is the stake NASA has taken in managing drone air traffic, known as UTM (Unmanned Traffic Management). Even before everyone had a neighbor who had a DJI Mavic, NASA was working on UTM proposals for the Federal Aviation Administration, which included conducting live, public demonstrations of UTM operations and hosting public workshops where feedback from regular folks was welcome. NASA’s tests were used as “a proof of concept for UTM capabilities and serve as the basis for policy considerations, standards development and the implementation of a UTM system,” according to a statement from the FAA.

These days, much of NASA’s UTM-related work includes establishing partnerships with other big drone players like Zipline to study how one (or a few) people can successfully manage a far larger fleet of autonomous vehicles, under what’s called the NASA (m:N) project.

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