Ancient winged reptiles could be inspiration for new fleet of drones

When engineers set out to create new machines, they tend to look forward rather than back.

And even if they do look to past designs, chances are they won’t go back over 200 million years for inspiration.

However, learning more about pterosaurs – flying reptiles that lived among the dinosaurs – could help in designing more efficient drones, scientists have said.

Palaeontologists looking at fossils of the largest animals ever to fly believe the prehistoric creatures may hold the solutions to drone flight problems, such as aerial stability and the ability to self-launch.

Dr Liz Martin-Silverstone, a palaeontologist at the University of Bristol and first author of the review published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, said: ‘There’s a lot of really cool stuff in the fossil record that goes unexplored because engineers generally don’t look to palaeontology when thinking about inspiration for flight.

‘If we’re only looking at modern animals for inspiration, we’re really missing a large degree of the morphology out there and ignoring a lot of options that I think could be useful.’

While engineers have mostly focused on the physiology of modern birds and insects when designing drones and planes, Dr Martin-Silverstone believes pterosaur fossils that provide insight into the anatomy of their wings could hold the clues to designing more efficient aircraft.

Most modern birds launch into the air through a leap or jump, known as ballistic launch, while the larger varieties require a running start to gain enough momentum for lift-off.

But the palaeontologists believe pterosaurs may have been able to launch themselves from a stationary position despite weighing more than 660lb (nearly 300kg), possibly due to the combined effort of the wing membrane and the robust muscle attachments in their wings.

They hypothesise that the pterosaurs’ unique wing structure allowed them to generate ‘a high-powered leap off of their elbows and wrists, giving them enough height to become airborne’.

Dr Martin-Silverstone said: ‘Today, something like a drone requires a flat surface to launch and is quite restricted on how it actually gets into the air.

‘The unique launch physiology of pterosaurs might be able to help solve some of these problems.’

Pterosaurs can also provide insights on how to prevent flight instability once in the air, the researchers said.

Dr Martin-Silverstone added: ‘So far we’ve struggled to design things like flight suits that can resist the pressures of flight.

‘If we can understand how pterosaurs did it, for instance by understanding how their wing membrane was actually structured, then that’s something we can use to answer modern engineering questions.’

Apart from pterosaurs, there were other prehistoric flyers with a unique wing structure, such as Microraptor, which had feathered wings on both their arms and legs.

And the recently discovered dinosaur Yi qi had wings that combined feathers with a bat-like membrane.

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