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Andrew Heafitz: Turning Playing with Model Rockets into a Real Job

A 1987 Westinghouse finalist combines a love of photography with a love of launching rockets, and invents a new aerial reconnaissance technology
Andrew Heafitz


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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.

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."

 

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