Bob Balaram, engineer behind NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter

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Ingenuity Mars Helicopter’s chief engineer Bob Balaram and the Mars Helicopter on a test stand. Photo: nasa.gov

Bob Balaram is the chief engineer for NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter that became the first aircraft in history to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet on April 19.

The Ingenuity team at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California confirmed the flight succeeded after receiving data from the helicopter via NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover, according to press releases from NASA.

The helicopter made its successful second flight on April 22 lasting 51.9 seconds, adding several new challenges to the first, including a higher maximum altitude, longer duration, and sideways movement.

“So far, the engineering telemetry we have received and analyzed tell us that the flight met expectations and our prior computer modeling has been accurate,” Balaram is quoted saying in the press release. “We have two flights of Mars under our belts, which means that there is still a lot to learn during this month of Ingenuity.”

Balaram who has been working at JPL as a robotics technologist for the past 36 years, developed an interest in space during his childhood in south India. According to his profile on NASA’s website, his uncle had written to the U.S. Consulate asking for information about NASA and space exploration. Young Balaram was entranced by the bulging envelope they sent back, stuffed with glossy booklets.

His interest in space was piqued further by listening to the Moon landing on the radio. “I gobbled it up,” he said. “Long before the internet, the U.S. had good outreach. You had my eyeballs.”

This passion led Balaram to gain a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, a master’s and Ph.D. in computer and systems engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

Previously, he researched precision landing methods for Mars as well as advanced simulation techniques for planetary entry, descent, and landing (EDL).

Balaram led the team that developed a high-fidelity EDL simulator that recently received a NASA Group Achievement Award and was adopted for use by the Mars Curiosity and Perseverance rover missions.

He is also the co-developer of a simulator used for planetary rover simulation, and 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.

Previously Balaram was the lead engineer for machine intelligence on the JPL Telerobot Testbed where he led a team responsible for coordinating multiple robotic manipulators and vision-based sensing to achieve automation of servicing operations such as module change-out and assembly.

He subsequently worked on the Remote Surface Inspection for the Space Station in the area of real-time, vision-based flaw detection of damage caused to the Space Station over its lifetime in orbit.

A member of Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Honor Society, Balaram is the recipient of two NASA awards and eight New Technology awards.

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