Friday 25 July 2014

"Think Batman x Iron Man": how pterosaurs are inspiring the next generation of aircraft

Admit it, whatever you drive to work seems a little less adequate now.

Pterosaurophile Mike Habib was recently featured in a Scientific American article about the utility of pterosaur research. Let's face it, as cool as pterosaurs are, it can be hard to justify research into them when the world is faced with real problems like climate change, overpopulation, an enormous biodiversity crisis and Michael Bay movies. But Mike's interest in pterosaurs principally concerns biomechanics, quantifying the mechanical properties of pterosaur anatomy and seeing what it was capable of, and this sometimes allows transference of their evolutionary solutions to our own technological problems. Among other things, pterosaur biomechanics might be applied to some big projects: developing unmanned vehicles - including some which may explore other planets - and developing wind-stable fabrics. The latter may not sound very exciting, but wind-resistant fabrics are essential in all sorts of extreme activities, from exploring remote corners of the world (think tents), lightweight aircraft (parachutes, hang gliders, etc.) and extreme sports (wingsuits).

But that's small fry compared to one idea mentioned in the article. As part of an international team - including myself - pterosaurs may be launching air travel in a whole new direction. The manner in which pterosaurs took off - so called quadrupedal launch - offers a solution to a problem faced thousands of times around the globe each day: launching aircraft into the air as effectively as possible. As we all know, three lines of evidence point to pterosaurs launching quadrupedally, with most effort coming from their forelimbs. 1) animals launch using from their 'default' gait, and pterosaurs were quadrupeds; 2) pterosaur forelimbs are much more developed than their hindlimbs, whereas the opposite is true in hindlimb launchers and, 3) above a certain size, pterosaur hindlimb bones would actually fail in launch (Habib 2008, 2013; Witton and Habib 2010). These point to a powerful, quadrupdal launch mechanic which permitted even the largest, 200-250kg pterosaurs to take to the skies from a standing start, while birds - with their hindlimb launches - are seemingly capped at 70-80kg.

It's not only large birds which look enviously on pterosaurs. Most of our own aircraft require runways for takeoff. Vehicles which can take off without runways, like helicopters, are constrained to large size because of their power requirements and required wingspans. All aircraft launches require lots of fuel, and lots of space. It's unsurprising, then, that quad-launching giant pterosaurs have attracted the attention of engineers, as they clearly evolved a method of launch which is not only space and fuel-efficient, but also incredibly powerful. Practical results are undoubtedly years away, but the notion of a small, solo-pilot aircraft being capable of quad-launch and powered flight is realistic enough that we're seeking money for a project to test the waters. The concept we have in mind resembles a suit more than a plane - as Mike put it on Twitter, "think Batman x Iron Man" - alluding to concepts of the craft being controlled by a person strapped within the chassis, sort of like wearing a multi-million dollar pterosaur costume.

A visual history of pterosaur-inspired flying machines. 1, Ernst Stromer, 1913, basic glider model of Rhamphorhynchus wing membranes; 2, Hankin and Watson, 1914, a model based on their pioneering studies of Pteranodon flight (Hankin and Watson 1914); 3, Erich von Holst, 1957, a rubber band powered, wing flapping Rhamphorhynchus glider; 4, Cherrie Bramwell and George Whitfield, 1974, 7m wingspan Pteranodon glider based on their seminal 1974 paper; 5, Bramwell and Whitfield, 1984, half scale 4.5m wingspan Pteranodon made for the BBC; 6, Paul MacReady, 1984-85, 5 m span Quetzalcoatlus remote controlled, computer balanced glider (see MacCready 1985); 7, Margot Gerritsen, 2005, scaled Anhanguera with fully articulated wings built for National Geographic; 8, Matt Wilkinson, Rodger Highfield, and Vivian Bock, 2007, wind tunnel model of Anhanguera used to test Wilkinson’s hypotheses on pteroid orientation, 9, PteroFlight, our new project looking into pterosaur wing performance and its applications. Image compiled by Iain McCreary, used with permission.

What might such a thing look like? Sadly, it's not going to look like the thing at the top of this post. What you've got there is food for thought rendered by someone who's aircraft design skills boils down to watching science fiction movies, and who's engineering protocols are determined by Cool Points. It takes the idea of a 'pterosaur exoskeleton' to an extreme definition, right down to the limb proportions, wing folding and ability to walk about on all fours. Undeniably cool looking, just not very practical. But technologies and ideas taken to an extreme in this painting actually do exist. Augmentation of human frames with robotic exoskeletons is an intensive area of research and already employed to aid physically disabled people, as well as boosting the carrying strength of ground troops. Computers capable of flying deliberately unstable and responsive aircraft -manned or unmanned - are widely utilised. Large, controllable pterosaur-inspired vehicles with moving, adaptable wings have been researched for 100 years (above) and achieved flight (albeit not launch) on numerous occasions, with recent models featuring automatic computer control. The basic elements of this project - essentially a computer-supported, pterosaur-inspired lightweight flying exoskeleton - are at the far end of known technological spectra, not fantasy and hokum.

Of course, we're not going to see pterosaur-inspired suits catapulting people skywards tomorrow. Some serious research and developmental work is required before we see anything like a working concept or even - if we're honest - if it's possible at all. At this stage, however, this ultimate application of pterosaur research is not being ruled out. In other words, keep watching the skies - and check out Mike's Scientific American feature for more details.


  • Bramwell, C. D., & Whitfield, G. R. (1974). Biomechanics of PteranodonPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 503-581.
  • Habib, M. B. (2008). Comparative evidence for quadrupedal launch in pterosaurs. Zitteliana, 159-166.
  • Habib, M. (2013). Constraining the air giants: limits on size in flying animals as an example of constraint-based biomechanical theories of form. Biological Theory8(3), 245-252.
  • Hankin, E. H., & Watson, D. M. S. (1914). On the flight of pterodactyls. Aeronautical journal, 324-335.
  • MacCready Jr, P. B. (1985). The great pterodactyl project. Engineering and Science49(2), 18-24.
  • Witton, M. P., & Habib, M. B. (2010). On the size and flight diversity of giant pterosaurs, the use of birds as pterosaur analogues and comments on pterosaur flightlessness. PloS one5(11), e13982.

Thursday 17 July 2014

TetZooCon 2014: the event the palaeozoological blogosphere deserves

Last Saturday hosted an event which might, in future years, be considered a strange experiment. Set up in typical convention manner with attendance fees, invited talks and interactive audience activities, its unique selling point was its inspiration: a (largely) technical science blog which covers obscure animals in as much, often more, detail than you'll find in any textbook or scientific paper, as well as arcane topics such as speculative biology, natural history art memes, and cryptozoology. I'm talking, of course, of TetZooCon 2014.

NB. Like a chump, I didn't take a single photograph the entire day, so you'll have to make do with a very bland blog post.

Held at the London Wetland Centre on the 12th of July, TetZooCon 2014 was the latest expansion of the 'TetZooVerse', an internet enterprise founded on three incarnations of the Tetrapod Zoology blog and, more recently, a podcast, two internet comics and on-demand merchandise. The brainchild of Darren Naish and (more recently) John Conway, it's undoubtedly one of the longest running and most successful science outreach exercises on the internet, and notable for covering complex narratives and scientific problems in the world of tetrapod studies. TetZoo fans thus comprise not only casual internet surfers but also researchers and practising scientists. Few other blogs can boast such appeal and far reach, making TetZoo one of the few internet enterprises which might manage the tricky move from the 'free' virtual world to one of admission fees, travel expenses and conference overheads.

In many respects, TetZooCon almost felt like watching a live version of the blog as different talks - essentially 'live blog posts' - covered an array of TetZoo-relevant topics. Unlike TetZoo, the floor did not solely belong to Darren and John, but shared by a host of excellent speakers. I'm not going to cover the talks in detail here because others have already done so, but the topics included speculative zoology, amphibian conservation, wildlife photography, vertebrate palaeontology, crytozoology and mythical animals. Regular readers will know that I was among the invited speakers and covered changing perceptions of azhdarchid pterosaurs. As with other elements of the TetZooverse, these talks meandered from pure science (sauropod neck length) to almost humanist topics (mermaids, the cryptozoological leanings of Shakespeare). Many struck ground between these extremes, noting the interplay between science and culture and how they've influenced each other - for better and worse. Arguably, providing a platform for such talks and the diversity of topics was TetZooCon's greatest success. I've not been to a conference where talk topics varied so considerably and, in contrast to conferences with homogenous themes, there was no chance for getting subject-weary here. The talks were presented at pitch-perfect semi-technical level, assuming that the audience was intelligent and would have some prior knowledge of the broader subjects at hand (e.g. there were no, or only very brief, explanations for what things like Orang Pendek, sauropods or azhdarchid pterosaurs are), while also appreciating the room was not full of experts. It helped, of course, that the speakers and presentations were excellent. I definitely walked away with a greater education than I walked in with.

Other events included a palaeoart workshop, where attendees - led by palaeoartists John Conway, Bob Nicholls and, er, me - attempted to restore the life appearance of the historic 'Mantell Piece' Mantellisaurus fossil, and a TetZoo-themed quiz. The former was of interest for not only palaeoart aficionados, but also anyone wanting to know how fossils are interpreted. There was discussion over bone identification, how many individuals were represented by the specimen, how we could deduce the affinities of the animal and so-on, and we all compared images and notes at the end. The work of the lead artists was beamed onto the screen behind us so audience members could not only see what we were sketching, but engage in discussion with us about specifics of the fossil. Suffice to say (cheating ne'er-do-wells aside who recognised the specimen and simply drew an ornithopod), there was virtually no reconstruction consensus. Tours of the wetland centre and the obligatory pub dinner followed, while merchandise - including prints, 'official' TetZoo products and the much lauded Palaeoplushies - was on sale all day.

Was the event a success? As a speaker and delegate, my opinion is an unreserved 'yes'. There were enough delegates to generate that 'real' conference feel, the day was varied and interesting, and it was a lot of fun to be part of. With strict scheduling, custom 'palaeoart cams', delegation packs and almost flawless audiovisual performance (except for my own talk!), the day was pulled off with the sort of professionalism you'd expect from a long running conference rather than a first-time event. Most importantly, the day felt fresh and different from other conferences. As millions of TetZoo readers and listeners attest, there is a large audience for the 'offshoots' of zoological science such as palaeoart, speculative zoology and so-on, but few venues exist to chat about these topics outside of the internet. TetZooCon is a welcome plug in that gap.

Of course, whether we'll see a second TetZooCon depends on the transformation of online (and free) participation in the TetZooverse to financial and time commitments from potential delegates. This point is really why I wanted to write this short post. Turnout for this first event was good and, happily, conference overheads were recouped. At the same time, I don't think Darren and John slept in beds of gold leaves that evening. Events like these live and die on the whims of potential delegates so, if you were 50:50 about attending this time around and decided against it, rest assured that it was a blast and you won't want to miss out again. If the event passed you by entirely, but you like the idea of an annual celebration of the palaeontological and zoological blogospheres, then you'll also want to get on board next time around. This is a conference with lots of potential and, with enough support, it could become one of the most accessible, unique and interesting fixtures of the conference calendar. If it happens, I'll be booking my place for TetZooCon 2015 as soon as I can next year. If that's not high recommendation, I don't know what is.