How Dinosaurs Are Influencing Modern-Day Drone Flight Technology

"Learn about the drone designed after a dinosaur and how pre-historic pterosaurs hold the key to resolving drone flight issues."

Existing organisms like bats, birds, and winged insects frequently impact the development of flying technologies. Only recently have engineers and scientists begun to look back. When merged into aeronautics, the flying apparatus and techniques used by the pterosaurs, the dinosaurs with wings that once dominated the sky, may prove revolutionary.

If you’ve never considered that a dinosaur may have an impact on a self-launching drone, reconsider. Paleontologists who study the remains of the biggest animals that ever flew believe that the extinct species may have the answers to drone flying issues like aerial stability or self-launch. Because engineers often don’t go to paleontology for inspiration when they think about flying, paleontologists claim that many amazing things in the fossil record remain undiscovered.

We are actually missing out on a lot of morphology available and disregarding a lot of alternatives, in my opinion, if we are solely drawing inspiration from contemporary species. While scientists believe pterosaur fossils that reveal information about their wing architecture might be a key to constructing more effective aircraft, engineers have mostly concentrated on contemporary insects and birds’ physiology when creating drones and planes.

dinosaurs influence modern flight

Modern vs. Pre-Historic Animal Flight

Most contemporary birds launch into the air with a leap or hop, referred to as a “ballistic launch,” whereas the bigger species need to run to build up enough momentum for takeoff. According to paleontologists, the wing membrane and the strong muscular attachments in the pterosaurs’ wings may have worked together to let them propel themselves from a stationary posture despite weighing close to 300 kg.

They propose that the pterosaurs were able to make a powerful leap off of the ground using their wrists and elbows, giving them enough height to become airborne, thanks to the special wing structure. A drone, for example, must now launch from a level surface and has limited options for how to really enter the air.

Some of these issues may be resolved by the unique launch physiology of pterosaurs. Pterosaurs, according to researchers, may offer guidance on how to avoid flight instability once in the air. Engineers have so far had difficulty creating items like flight suits that can withstand the forces of flying.

They might be able to address contemporary engineering problems if they can comprehend how pterosaurs accomplished their feats by comprehending the real structure of their wing membrane. Pterosaurs weren’t the only ancient flyers with distinctive wing structures; Microraptor, for instance, possessed feathered wings on both their arms and legs. And the recently found dinosaur Yi qi had wings made of feathers and membrane – like a bat.

dinosaurs influence modern flight

Components in Powered Flight

The development of launch, the beginning of a flying stroke that produces thrust, and the development of in-flight control are the three main stages in the evolution of powered flight in animals. The form of flight that uses powered aircraft requires wing flapping. The gliding or soaring that powered fliers may also perform is known as unpowered flight. Only once in invertebrates and three times in vertebrates hath powered flight emerged.

Invertebrates are inherently wingless insects. Pterosaurs lived during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods for 160 million years, and once they died out, the only animals still capable of powered flight were birds and bats. The fact is that pterosaurs differed in their methods for taking off and maintaining flight.

New Insights

The discovery of pterosaur fossils has revealed new information on the evolution of powered flight in vertebrates. Because several skeletons were partial, paleontologists previously disregarded them despite being the biggest creatures ever to fly. Layers of the wing membrane and the wing attachment at the hip are visible in the rare, perfectly preserved specimens that have survived this long.

It is still feasible to determine the most effective design even if the wing shape is not immediately apparent. Beyond propulsion and control of its flight, the tail, forelimbs, and hindlimbs all had other purposes. Such multimodal systems are pertinent to UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) applications when generalist functionality is required, doing numerous jobs with little human assistance.

 Big pterosaurs had the edge over today’s bigger birds. For example, a heron must get moving quickly to take off. Despite certain species of pterosaurs weighing as much as they did, it is thought that their anatomy allowed them to propel themselves into the air utilizing their wing membranes and strong wing muscles capable of simultaneously leaping off of their elbows, wrists, and feet. This quadrupedal jump could make launching certain current airplanes and spacecraft easier.

Due to the design of their wing membranes, pterosaurs also possessed large, sturdy wings that were resistant to flapping in the air. They are believed to have had the strength and flexibility necessary to stretch while flying.

dinosaurs influence modern flight

The First Dinosaur Drone

An aeronautical engineer from the University of Florida, Rick Lind, and paleontologist Sankar Chatterjee of Texas Tech University created a 30-inch robotic spy plane that was based on a 225 million-year-old pterodactyl. The drone was designed to gather information from sights, sounds, and scents in urban conflict zones and broadcast it back to a command center. It had an odd rudder design located at its nose rather than the tail.

According to Chatterjee and Lind, this research will use pterodactyls as the model species to show a new generation of sensor installation capabilities. The autonomous, sensor-packed ship might soon be demonstrated using current materials and actuators.

The military’s upcoming airborne drones, called Pterodrone, won’t just be small and silent; they’ll also use morphing to change the shape of their wings so they can fit through narrow openings, dive between buildings, fly under overpasses, land on apartment balconies, or sail along the coast for surveillance.

Their Theory

From the late Triassic Period until the end of the Cretaceous Period, or 228 to 65 million years ago, pterodactyls existed. They ruled the Mesozoic skies, flying over dinosaurs’ heads. They ranged in size from a sparrow to a Cessna with a 35-foot wingspan. Their bodies had thin bones and a complex network of collagen fibers, giving their membranous wings more strength and agility.

According to Chatterjee, these creatures use the finest features of birds and bats. They could glide like an albatross while being as maneuverable as a bat. Nothing now alive comes close to matching the efficiency and agility of these creatures. They were intelligent animals since they had a lifespan of 160 million years. They were in flocks, lowering the sky. They ruled the skies as the main avian species of the time.

The Brazilian pterodactyl Tapejara Wellnhoferi had a huge, narrow sail on its head that served as a sense organ. Even though it was the size of a Canada goose, its unusual shape set it apart from the other flying Cretaceous creatures. This concept has shown potential as a prototype for the creation of the Pterodrone, a UAV with better agility for tasks requiring movement in the air, on land, and in the water.

Their Design

An airplane’s tail being located in the nose would seem to be a bad design. However, Chatterjee’s investigation into Tapejara’s flying revealed that the rudder functioned similarly to a contemporary aircraft’s flight computer and also aided the animal’s agility while turning. We’ve learned they could truly sail on the wind for extremely extended periods of time as they soared over the oceans since the discovery of a full Tapejara in Brazil approximately ten years ago, he added.

The majority of their time was spent fishing. They could travel across the sea in the slightest breeze by raising their wings like sails on a boat. They could take off rapidly and glide for great distances. The drone will also sail in a similar way.

At first, Lind admitted he was hesitant to build a drone with its tail attached to the front of the vehicle. They instantly questioned how Tapejara could live in that position after hearing Lind’s explanation that a vertical tail on the head is a destabilizing impact. As the animal, or in this case, the aircraft, must modify its flight characteristics in order to benefit from the vertical tail’s turning capabilities and maintain stability, the flight control issue becomes highly pertinent.

Using computer simulation models and the whole skeleton of the Tapejara, Chatterjee and Lind could decipher the secrets of flight from this unusually formed flying creature. After watching a report on the Discovery Channel about our bird-inspired aircraft, Sankar got in touch with him around three years ago to ask if a pterodactyl-inspired aircraft may potentially be doable.

Once they had come to a shared understanding and could expand on it, they began to really discuss each other’s ideas. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense received the combined proposal from Chatterjee and Lind for evaluation.

dinosaurs influence modern flight

The Future

Surprisingly, bio-inspiration has resulted in a wide range of robotic designs, particularly tiny UAVs for urban settings that took design influences from insects, birds, and bats. A pterodactyl wing is a complex structure of skin, hair, muscles, tendons, blood vessels, and nerve tissue as compared to a fixed-wing aircraft.

These structures haven’t been fully understood by scientists, but they may be crucial for building the wings of everything from mega-planes to drones. Some of these pre-historic aircraft included extra components that managed speed during descent and landing. When it comes to ensuring that a lander actually lands rather than explodes, this might be a great value in the world of spacecraft.

Fossil forms offer a wide range of structures and integrated systems that can support the development of robotics, lightweight structures, low-flutter textiles, and next-generation airplanes, according to Martin-Silverstone. So don’t be shocked if you ever see a drone flying above with dinosaur-like wings.

Picture of Cindy L

Cindy L


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