Pterodactyls may soar once more

Airborne drone to be modeled on extinct flying reptile

The futuristic design of the military’s next-generation reconnaissance drone could have an ancient twist: Paleontologists and aeronautical engineers are looking to copy the aerodynamic performance of a flying reptile that lived millions of years ago.

PTERO-MACHINE PAST MEETS PRESENT. Computer analyses hint that a drone designed like the pterodactyl Tapejara wellnhoferi (as envisioned in this computer model) could maneuver better than a drone with a rudder in its tail. Chatterjee et al.

Pterodactyls, a type of flying reptile that lived from 228 million to 65 million years ago, dominated the sky while dinosaurs strolled below, says Sankar Chatterjee, a paleontologist at TexasTechUniversity in Lubbock. “These animals had the maneuverability of a bat but could glide like an albatross,” Chatterjee said October 7 in Houston at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America. “Nothing alive today compares to the performance and agility of these animals.”

Little wonder that modern engineers would seek to mimic what nature perfected long ago. Chatterjee, aeronautical engineer Rick Lind of the University of Florida in Gainesville, and their students used Tapejara wellnhoferi, a goose-sized pterodactyl that lived in what is now Brazil about 115 million years ago, as the design inspiration for a reconnaissance drone.

Scientists have long known that some pterodactyls had unusual crests on their heads, but paleontologists have only recently unearthed fossils preserved well enough to show these features in three dimensions. While Tapejara’s was alive, the tall crest on its skull served as a rudder, Chatterjee says.

He and his colleagues, by placing a rudder on the front of their aircraft rather than the back, rendered their drone aerodynamically unstable — a trait that also makes it incredibly maneuverable. The team’s computer analyses suggest that the drone’s turning radius is about 14 percent smaller than that of a craft with a traditional, rudder-in-the-tail configuration. Such a performance boost would help the drone better maneuver through tight spaces, zoom under overpasses or dive between buildings.

The researchers hope to develop an 80-centimeter–wingspan, sensor-filled prototype that can operate on land or sea or in the air, just as a pterodactyl could. Once operational, the drone could, say, land on rooftops, clamber to hiding spots and monitor its surroundings with cameras or chemical sensors. Or, it could swoop down onto the surface of a lake, spy on things onshore and then take off and return to base, says Chatterjee.

Chatterjee and his colleagues plan to begin building a prototype drone later this year and hope to receive a grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, to continue their work. Other teams have built reconnaissance drones that mimic bats and insects. But Chatterjee’s team is the first to design a reconnaissance drone that would imitate a pterodactyl.

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