He spent a few years after college working for the consulting firm Arthur D. Little and the renewable energy firm Solectria, then decided to go back to M.I.T. to earn his master's degree in mechanical engineering in the late 1990s. In the meantime, he kept tweaking his aerial photography designs.
In the intervening decade, rocket technology "had come along quite a ways," he says. In high school, his rockets had been three to five feet (90 to 150 centimeters) in size. By his second stint at M.I.T., he built a rocket the size of a tennis ball can with a video camera inside. The camera transmitted images back to Earth, where a computer program quickly assembled the images into the electronic equivalent of a salad bowl mosaic. The size of the rocket and the quality of the images opened the door to all sorts of uses; the Air Force wound up giving Heafitz a contract to develop his technique for military reconnaissance. "A soldier could carry a six-pack of these things and a laptop computer and be able to see a mile away," he says. "You wouldn't have to call up the Air Force and get an airplane to come by and scout for you."
He also won the 2002 $30,000 Lemelson–M.I.T. Student Prize (which rewards student inventors) for his ability "to bring ideas from diverse fields of engineering to bear on a particular problem," says Joshua Schuler, executive director of the Lemelson–M.I.T. Program. "Not only does Andrew invent better, but also less expensive and more efficient devices."
What he's doing now: A military contract (and TacShot, Inc., a company that Heafitz started to develop the technology) ran for awhile, but it wasn't renewed, and Heafitz moved on to other things. Currently he is working on another airborne object: a flying car.
A friend from M.I.T., Carl Dietrich, launched start-up Terrafugia a few years ago to build and commercialize the "Transition Roadable Aircraft"—a lightweight airplane that also can be driven as a car when its wings are folded. Heafitz joined two years ago, and did most of the ground-based test drives; the company will start flight tests in early February and hopes to bring the craft to market in the second half of 2010.
With his history of invention and product design, according to Dietrich, Heafitz was a natural for the job. "He's one of the best design engineers I've ever met," he says. "I wanted to make sure he got involved in the project as soon as possible."