Pterosaurs inspired aircraft

19 June 2011
Posted by Dave Ansell.

Although for most airliners being able to change direction very quickly isn't hugely important, as unmanned aerial vehicles are getting used more and more, especially in complex urban environments, being able to turn sharply can make the difference between carrying on its mission or ending up splattered against a wall.

A very productive seam of ideas for engineers has been bio-mimetics, copying ideas from living things. This has given us ideas ranging from velcro to catseyes in the road, but Brian Roberts and Rick Lind from the University of Florida and colleagues have been taking this strategy one step further. They have been taking ideas from dead creatures, very dead creatures that haven't lived for 65 million years, pterosaurs to be precise.

These were a form of flying reptile which survived for over 150 million years and included the largest ever flying animal with a wing span of 40 feet. One striking feature of many of these pterosaurs is that they have large head crests. It has been suggested that these were just for display but they may have had an aerodynamic purpose, acting like a rudder.

So the group wondered if putting your rudder at the front of a plane might be useful. They have done lots of modeling and found that for the same size rudder at the front of the plane, it should give the plane a 15% smaller turning circle. The problem is that you also loose stability so they are looking into somehow morphing or moving the rudder around to get the best of both worlds.

So in the future we might see pterosaur inspired planes flying around our cities. Who knows what else ancient animals and plants might inspire.

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