The latest in futuristic aircraft design borrows from the past: A 225-million-year-old pterodactyl may soon be reborn as a flying robot.
Soaring above the ocean in the early part of the Cretaceous period, the Canada Goose-sized Tapejara wellnhoferi would have been a jarring sight to behold. Most of the animal's body looked like the typical flying lizard frame — light, airy wings stretched taut with skin, and a slender avian neck.
But an 8-inch-high fleshy crest stuck straight up from its head.
Sankar Chatterjee of Texas Tech University in Lubbock said that recently discovered fossils of the dinosaur found in Brazil showed the crest intact, and that it probably functioned as a form of rudder.
Chatterjee is now teaming up with aerospace engineer Richard Lind at the University of Florida to turn the ancient aviator into a cutting-edge robotic aircraft.
On most aircraft the vertical tail fin is at the back, where it functions as a stabilizer. Slight shifts in its position act like a rudder to push a plane into smooth, banking turns.
The pterosaur's head crest is like having the tail at the front of the plane, Lind said. As the animal turned its head, it could execute drastic, sharp turns, making it incredibly agile.
"It's really good for turn radius and tracking prey while it flies," he said. "But it's inherently unstable. The tradeoff is it probably had to move its wings a lot more to fly."
Later this year, Lind plans to affix a metal fin to the head of a conventional remote-controlled flying vehicle to test how well the design works. If it's airworthy, he plans to move on to a model that steers using its head.
"This design will generate a lot of force that's going to turn you around fast when the rudder turns," Sean Humbert of the University of Maryland said. "The dynamics of the plane might be too fast for humans to control. You might need an active control system, a sort of fly-by-wire setup."
Such airplanes have been built before. The experimental Grumman X-29, for example, had wings that were swept forward, making the plane very unstable but highly maneuverable. A computer made adjustments on the fly, allowing the pilot to safely control the plane.
Small flying robots that mimic insect flight are also unstable, but they compensate with rapid wing flapping.
Still, no one has built an aircraft with a head crest before.
"It's nice to have something stable, but the military is interested in having aircraft that can fly down into cities between buildings, avoiding wires and stuff like that," Humbert said. "This is a good design if you want to do crazy acrobatic maneuvers."