Can we make pterosaur planes yet?

Short answer, no, longer answer, maybe one day but there is at least some cool potential here. That’s the basic gist of a new paper I have out today with Liz Martin-Silverstone and Mike Habib on flight in the fossil record and its implications for aircraft design.

Back in the earliest days of human-powered flight there was an inevitable draw to birds for inspiration as heavier than air fliers, and there’s more than enough videos of cranky machines flopping around on their wings failing to get off the ground if you are into that sort of thing. Aerospace technology has moved on though and bird-like flying machines (called ornithopters) do now exist. More and more technology takes inspiration from living organisms (biomemetics, bioinspired tech) and when it comes to flight, so often at the forefront of engineering, this has included all manner of bits of bird and feather-like features. Bats have played a lesser role too and insects are increasingly looked at since now aircraft do not have to have pilots and remote controlled craft, drones, autonomous vehicles (and plenty of other names and acronyms) are increasing in number and diversifying in form.

Amidst all of this, the fossil record goes almost unnoticed. Flying organisms have all manner of adaptations for weight reduction, streamlining, ways of manipulating lift, drag and control and of structural support with unusual forces and combining issues like take-off and landing on usual surfaces with having to actually fly. They provide known working models that can be directly copies and mimicked, or at least used as a starting point to investigate ideas. Given the plethora of flying animals in the fossil record (both gliders and powered fliers) that have no living analogues, these would seem an excellent place to seek out new technological innovations and ideas and the idea of this paper is to try and trigger some interest in this. True, people have looked at pterosaur flight, though mostly to see how pterosaurs might have flown. Only a very limited amount of work has been done looking at these as possible aircraft models and even then it’s been holistic with no real look at the details of wing construction or control. And this is just one clade and ignores things like Yi, with its combination of membranes and feathers, Microraptor with its multiple control surfaces, Sharovipteryx the delta-winged glider and others.

The paper is short though and writing such a piece that is trying to work for engineers with potentially little knowledge of biology, biomechanicists with little knowledge of palaeontology and palaeontologists with little knowledge of either. As a result, it’s rather superficial in terms of its treatment of many ideas and concepts despite a vast amount of cited literature (we had to get dispensation for the editor to include so many and the referees were still unhappy and wanted more) but it does hopefully provide some real information and ideas for these three groups of researchers to come together and make use of the palaeontological resources at their disposal.

So while we might not see any pterosaur-based drones around anytime soon (or indeed ever) we hopefully will see considerably more interest in flying animals in the fossil record on all sides and this certainly has the potential to feed back into new designs. I’d obviously love to see an azhdarchid drone that can walk, run, launch and fly but even seeing something like an anctinofibril-based system of wing warping or pteroid-supported propatagium would be super cool. Stanger bits of the biological world have been looked at for engineering and hopefully various fossils will become a part of this in the near future.


Martin-Silverstone, E., Habib, M.B., & Hone, D.W.E. 2020. Volant fossil vertebrates: potential for bioinspired flight technology. Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

Note: this has gone live a week earlier than we were told to expect and the version out there is currently the uncorrected proof, and while we didn’t make any substantive changes, a better version of this should follow.

2 Responses to “Can we make pterosaur planes yet?”

  1. 1 kestrelart 10/04/2020 at 9:48 pm

    Weirdly I was trying to think this through as a teenager more than 40 years ago building paper models based on Cherry Bramwell and George (?) Whitfield’s papers on pteranodon. Cherry graciously wrote to me and sent me a photocopy. I was 13. It was a bit beyond me.

  2. 2 Allen Hazen 11/04/2020 at 3:39 am

    Well, pterosaur inspired NAMES for aircraft are a thing. J.W. Dunne was a British aviation pioneer. Before the First World War he built a prototype of a swept wing and tail-less aircraft, that was successful enough to have attracted the attention of the U.S. military. Appropriately, given the tail-less configuration, he called it … Pterodactyl.

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