Looking for innovations in aircraft design, engineers have gone back to the tried and true designs of 65 million years ago.

Head crests were all the rage for pterosaurs for 160 million years, until the flying reptiles went extinct along with the dinosaurs.

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Almost all pterosaurs had them, in one form or another. Brian Roberts and Rick Lind from the University of Florida, and Sankar Chatterjee from Texas Tech University thought there might be something to those crests besides looking good for a mate.

The researchers designed an aircraft with the vertical tail moved to the front, like a pterosaur's crest. Giving aircraft a crest increased its turning ratio by 14%. Aircraft that need to maneuver in tight spaces or around obstacles could benefit from crests.

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“The applications of a pterosaur-inspired design cover the spectrum of uses already being adopted for UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles], such as search and rescue, damage assessment, surveillance, drug interdiction, border security, and communication,” Lind said in an interview with PhysOrg.com.

“Essentially, the technology has potential benefits for aircraft that need to increase maneuverability and fly among obstacles. The pterosaurs had a vast range in wingspan and crest size, so a correspondingly large range of aircraft may benefit from the biological-inspired design,” Lind said.

“The pterosaur project is part of a large on-going effort into biological-inspired design at the University of Florida,” Lind said.

Biomimetics is the practice of studying living things and using nature's designs in engineering machines, tools, materials, and buildings. Engineers even try to improve on Mother Nature's handiwork.

One improvement the researchers made to the pterosaur design was to allow the crest to move from front to back on the aircraft. Having a vertical crest may increase maneuverability, but it decreases stability. By allowing the crest to slide back and become a vertical tail, as well as rotate 45 degrees, improved the aircraft's aerodynamics.

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The research is published in a recent issue of Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.

IMAGE 1: Wukongopterus in flight (Wikimedia Commons).

IMAGE 2: Pterodactyloid pterosaur Pteranodon sternbergi by John Conway (Wikimedia Commons).