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Technology

Pterodactyl-Shaped Spy Plane May Soon Take to the Skies

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Engineers have designed a robotic spy plane that is modeled on the pterodactyls that swooped through the sky between 228 million to 65 million years ago, while dinosaurs tromped over the land below. Perhaps unsurprisingly, researchers say that their prototype is the first aircraft inspired by a pterosaur (the broader scientific name for all winged lizards). Paleontologist Sankar Chatterjee partnered with engineer Rick Lind to design their "Pterodrone;" the two men say the work was driven in part by their admiration for the vesatility of pterosaurs.

With lightweight bones and an intricate system of collagen fibers that strengthened their wings, [pterosaurs] ranged from the size of a sparrow to the size of a Cessna plane. "These animals take the best parts of bats and birds. They had the maneuverability of a bat but could glide like an albatross. Nothing alive today compares to the performance and agility of these animals" Chatterjee said [AP].

For a model, they focused specifically on a pterosaur called Tapejara wellnhoferi that lived during the early Cretaceous Period. The goose-sized beast had a tall crest on its head that researchers say acted as a rudder, and the Pterodrone copies this feature with a large protrusion in front. But there's a good reason why modern day airplanes have their stabilizing fins on the back rather than the front, Chatterjee explains.

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 [Science News].

The researchers unveiled their design at a meeting of the Geological Society of America this week, and are hoping to receive a DARPA grant to continue the work. Related Content: 80beats: Helicopters Learn to Fly Themselves by Studying an Expert Pilot 80beats: Solar-Powered Spy Plane Stays Aloft for Over Three Days 80beats: Autonomous, Snooping Robots Almost Ready for the Front Line

Image: Chatterjee et al.

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