Andrew Heafitz has modest ambitions. As an entering MIT undergraduate in 1987, “I was just hoping to be average,” says the now 32-year-old doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering, whose earlier aspiration was dispelled when he was awarded the 2002 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for inventiveness.
The prestigious $30,000 award was not the first public recognition of Heafitz’s remarkable ingenuity. Creator of low-cost rocket engines, aerial surveillance systems, de-mining devices, a gas leak detector now used in developing countries and other innovations, Heafitz points to a balsa wood rocket camera he built in high school as the “pinnacle of my engineering career.” The motor-driven device won him the 1987 Westinghouse Science Talent Search contest, “got me into MIT – it wasn’t my grades! – and landed me my first job, at Arthur D. Little,” where he was a product design consultant. The aerial photographic system, for which the humble inventor holds a patent, also got him involved in a Greek archeological expedition, where his camera system discovered a submerged portion of the ancient city and doubled the existing site’s area.
Born and raised in Newton, Massachusetts, Heafitz was a natural tinkerer from an early age. He loved taking things apart “to understand how things work,” he explains; Legos, the three-dimensional building toys, and model airplanes were among his favorites as a young child. When he was four, his grandfather predicted he would grow up to be a mechanical engineer, a term he wasn’t familiar with “until I started applying to college and had to find something to do.” Once, when he was pre-driving age, Heafitz took apart his father’s lawn mower to see if he could power a go-cart with it. “My conclusion was I couldn’t. I’m grateful my father understood that I didn’t have it in mind to put the lawn mower back together.”
Heafitz’s enchantment with aerial photography – “am I overcompensating for being short,” quips the 5’6″ inventor – has been with him as far back as he can remember. “I’ve always liked things that fly, and what things look like from up there has always been fascinating,” he explains, adding that “from an artistic vantage point, it’s beautiful.”
Heafitz’s fascination with sky-high photography is now focused on a new rocket camera he is developing for the U. S. military. The size of a soda can, the device transmits high-speed reconnaissance aerial photos, also useful for emergency-response personnel, to a laptop computer. To develop and produce the low-cost surveillance system, Heafitz formed TacShot Inc., and the recognition generated by the Lemelson Student Prize has given his company access to needed financial support, he says. (The prize money also funded his honeymoon in Iceland, where he took pictures from the ground, in his rental car.) Heafitz’s penchant for sky borne projectiles was boosted by his undergraduate involvement in the MIT Solar Racing Team. “I learned a lot from solar car racing – more than I learned in class, because it was practical, hands-on knowledge of how things work or don’t,” he says. For the past 11 years, his team has won the American Tour De Sol, and he holds the record – 14 minutes, 11 seconds – for climbing Mt. Washington in an electric car.
Applications of Heafitz’s solar car experience surface in many of his endeavors, including a low-cost, kerosene-liquid oxygen rocket engine, which became his master’s thesis. The design simplifies high-performance engines needed to reach space and can be manufactured at one-tenth the cost of existing rocket engines. Now in the re-design phase, the system will be launched in 2004 by the MIT Rocket Team, which Heafitz co-founded and co-leads. The rocket’s payload is a video system that will take panoramic aerial photos along the suborbital flight path, which will begin at a NASA site in Virginia and extend out towards Bermuda;the video will be exhibited at Boston’s Museum of Science. “The exciting thing about this engine, if it works,” he says, “is it will be very inexpensive.”
Keep It Simple
Heafitz’s affinity for low-cost, low-tech squares with the ‘keep-it-simple’ philosophy he learned building solar car prototypes. “Projects can grow out of hand; you can work on R&D forever. I’ve learned, the more simple you keep it, the more chance you have of getting successful results.”
Heafitz comes by his ideas “based on what needs to be done, especially if it helps things work better,” he reflects. Recently at an office superstore, he noticed a power strip with battery backup for computers, an idea he had years ago. Likewise with an automotive dashboard monitor that reveals tire pressure – “I thought of it a long time ago,” he says. “These are all cool ideas, but I didn’t have the resources or the connections to get them going. An important part of inventing is being able to do something about your ideas. If I have several ideas at any one time, the object is to pick one I can accomplish. Knowing which idea to pursue is just as important as having ideas in the first place.” Heafitz also warns against obsessing about an idea: “You get tunnel vision and then you can’t see better ideas. For each idea there’s a window of opportunity. If you’re too set, you may not see that the window has closed.”
Heafitz’s window, his many windows, appear to be fully open. Evidently, his striving to be average has been effective. “It got me this far,” he muses. “I think I’ll stick with it.”