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His finalist year: 1987
His finalist project: Building a lightweight balsa camera that could be lofted on a model rocket
What led to the project: As a kid growing up in Newton, Mass., in the 1980s Andrew Heafitz was always interested in photography and model rockets. He had a darkroom in his house, and he liked to launch his rockets in local fields.
In high school he got the idea of combining the two interests. A commercially available plastic model rocket camera could take one picture (of, say, the ground below) per launch. With only one shot, it was hard to capture images that inspired. "I thought I had a better way of doing it," he says.
So he tried different approaches until he managed to build a camera out of the lightest material he had available—balsa wood. It weighed three ounces (85 grams) and could take 10 frames per second on 35 millimeter film. With so many photos, he could piece together a more coherent picture from the captured images than the available technology allowed.
Heafitz launched his rocket many times from his parents' New Hampshire vacation home, and captured aerial photos of the house and road. When the rocket would split in two so that it could release its soft-landing parachute, the camera even captured the bottom part of the rocket dropping away. Because of the way the camera took pictures during the rocket's flight trajectory, the captured images had slightly different perspectives of different objects. (For instance, the images of the horizon formed a circle.) Heafitz started pasting these images as a mosaic into the one object he could find that had the right concave shape for displaying all of them simultaneously—his mom's salad bowl.
He entered his report on the project (and the salad bowl) in the 1987 Westinghouse Science Talent Search, and was named a finalist. He also, at his father's urging, decided to enlist a patent lawyer to help him apply for a patent on the rocket camera. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted the patent in 1988, shortly after Heafitz enrolled as an engineering undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology the previous year.
The effect on his career: "I've pretty much been working on this project ever since," he says. He soon started experimenting with taking photos from a balloon (like the kinds often tethered over car dealerships). A Cornell archaeology professor gave the young inventor a practical chance to deploy this technology on one of his digs in Greece, and so Heafitz traveled there half a dozen times over the next few years to take aerial photographs of the site.
There is nothing new about aerial photography, but there was something new about Heafitz's approach: "I could show up in Greece with two suitcases worth of equipment and do a season's worth of aerial surveying instead of having to rent a helicopter," he says. The lower cost made such work feasible for small-scale operations like the dig. Indeed, "we actually discovered that the archaeology site extended out into the ocean from these pictures," he says. "We could see walls extended into the bay," which is something the archeologists hadn't known. He also used balloon imaging technology to take aerial photographs of the Whydah pirate ship excavation site off the Massachusetts coast.