When I was a kid, one of my favorite dinosaurs was the Pterosaurs. They could swoop and fly through the air, reptiles (sort of) with the ability to fly! One of the disingishing characteristics of Pterosaurs is that they all have this protrusion on the back of their skulls. From the tiniest (about 12 grams) to the largest (about 70 kilograms, one big toothy flying lizard there, Hoss) they all had a crest at the back of the skull.
There has been a lot of debate about why this particular protrusion was selected for as the group of Pterosaurs evolved. There are theories that it was like the antlers of deer or elk, somehow involved in matting. There are theories (this goes for a lot of dinosaurs) that it was covered with little blood vessels and allowed the flying lizards to dissipate heat.
However there is also the theory that on a flying creature, where weight is always going to be a major issue, the only reason that it could have possibly evolved was to assist in flying. There is some new evidence that this is indeed the case. Interestingly it does not come from paleontologists, but from engineers.
Phys.Org is reporting that a team from the University of Florida in conjunction with a team from Texas Tech has done a study that indicates that planes designed (inside computers) with a vertical tail close to the nose of the aircraft have much better maneuvering capability than planes with the tail at the…err….tail of the plane.
How much better? How about a 14% reduced turn radius. Now that might not sound like a big deal but a plane which can turn faster is one that can avoid objects more nimbly. Of course the obvious application is in war planes both fighters and bombers. One of the reasons that we built any of the F-22 Raptor fighters is that they can vector thrust. That means instead of turning around a straight line thrust, they can take a 30% up angle of attack while maintaining forward velocity. Long nerdy story short, they can do turns that no other aircraft in the world can achieve.
The problem is that thrust vectoring, while super ultra cool for a technophile like myself, it is super expensive and requires a whole lot of computerization and supporting technology.
What another really cool factor of this design is that it planes which have it would be able to turn the tail in the direction they want the plane to go, instead of the way things work today where the tail turns one direction and the nose of the plane goes the other.
Still nothing in life is free. The benefit you get from a tall vertical tail is nearly cancelled out by the reduction in stability, both dynamic and static. While a living creature could put up with that kind of thing, since they would have instincts and nothing better to do than constantly adjust their position in the air, it is pretty bad news for aircraft.
But the researchers did not give up! They looked at the problem like the engineers they are and decided that if there were a track on the upper surface of the plane that allowed the tail to move back and forth depending on the needs of the aircraft at the time, it would fix this problem.
So, will we see planes like this in the near future? Probably not manned aircraft, but almost certainly in drones of various types. The crest allowed the Pterosaurs to be very maneuverable at very low speeds. This would allow UAV’s to fly in places where they really can’t today, like in low level scouting missions through city streets.
While it is unfortunate that this nifty little bit of biological knowledge will be almost certainly be used for military applications first, it is still a wonder that such an elegant bit of engineering came about originally in a flying creature that died out 65 million years before the Wright Brother’s ever thought they could get into the air.
What is on your minds tonight Firedogs? The floor is yours!