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Aerial Photography


When Andrew Heafitz was a child, family members could tell by his passion for rockets, airplanes, Legos and building toys that he was a natural engineer. By the time he was in junior high school, he was creating gadgets including a high-speed camera made of balsa wood which he flew in a model rocket. He applied for and received his first U.S. patent for the camera shutter. In high school, he was a Westinghouse Science Talent Search Finalist.

After high school, the Newton, Mass. native enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he majored in mechanical engineering. For his undergraduate thesis he developed a remote balloon photography system. The tethered system uses a camera that is attached to a 10-foot helium balloon. A modified version of Heafitz's system using a tele-operated video camera was employed during an archeological expedition that further uncovered a submerged portion of an ancient Greek city that dates to 5,000 B.C. The system also assisted in the recovery of the pirate ship Whydah, which sunk in 1716 off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass.

More recently Heafitz has been working on a new rocket camera system for the U.S. Army that could be used to conduct surveillance. His latest aerial photography system consists of a patent pending rocket the size of a soda can, with a video camera and transmitter inside the nosecone. The pictures from the flight are transmitted to a laptop computer where the images can immediately be displayed in an easy-to-view format. He used his rocket camera concept to form in the fall of 2001 TacShot Inc., a company which develops and produces the low-cost aerial surveillance systems. The prototype system has been successfully demonstrated to the U.S. Army and is now being fine-tuned.

Heafitz has also invented devices that are low-cost and low-tech, making them ideal for use and production in developing countries. While taking an MIT course in humanitarian demining, he developed a device for digging up buried landmines. The device, a micro-flail (a shaft with several chains attached) that is powered by a chain-saw engine, uncovers landmines quickly and safely. He also created a wooden practice mine that can be used for training. Stepping on the device triggers a pop-up flag. Another one of his inventions in this area is a gas tank leak detection device that is purely mechanical and uses no electrical components, thereby eliminating the risk of explosion from electrical sparks near the storage tanks. The device indicates contamination of surrounding ground water through a signal flag that deploys if gasoline is detected, making it more practical to check wells frequently. Three hundred of these devices have been delivered for testing in South America, and a major petroleum company has plans to order 50,000 for use in developing countries.

Before returning to MIT in 1998 for his graduate studies, Heafitz worked as a Product Design Consultant for Arthur D. Little where he designed and helped build the "Plant Growth Facility" experiment, which was flown on the space shuttle and was used to look at how plants grow without the influence of gravity. There he also worked on a carbon fiber bicycle for a leading bicycle manufacturer, night vision goggle harnesses, and surgical tools. He also worked for Solectria Corporation as Director of Truck Production Engineering. There he was the lead engineer for the conversion of both popular pick-up trucks and delivery trucks to electric vehicles.

At MIT, for his master's thesis, Heafitz helped to build a low-cost, kerosene-liquid oxygen rocket engine, using a solar-car motor to get it up to full speed before igniting. His experience and familiarity with solar-powered cars, which Heafitz builds and races as a hobby, inspired his ideas. The design simplifies the high-performance engine needed to reach space and can be manufactured at one-tenth the cost of existing rocket engines. Heafitz also invented a method of using the solar-car motor as a dynamometer to determine if the turbine produced enough power for the engine to be self-sustaining.

Heafitz was selected in the winter of 2002 as winner of the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize . He expects to complete his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering in 2005.

Heafitz currently serves as an advisor to the MIT Solar Car Team. In September 2005 the team participated in the World Solar Car Challenge Race in Australia. He also teaches a class called Prototypes to Products, which helps students bring their projects and inventions to implementation in their fields.

[June 2002]

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