Andrew Heafitz, 34
Invented inexpensive rocket-based surveillance systems
Andrew Heafitz acquired his first patent- for a high-speed shutter on a balsa wood camera- at age 19. Since then he has designed electric vehicles, invented a low-cost rock engine, and developed a plant growth experiment that flew on two space shuttle missions. His MIT undergraduate thesis centered on a remote-control aerial-photography system he built using a Nikon camera and a helium balloon. While he was a mechanical engineering master’s student at MIT, he installed a tiny off-the-shelf video camera inside the nose of a small rocket he’d designed. He called the device TacShot and in 2001 launched a company of the same name in Cambridge, MA. The 350-gram self-propelled rocket travels to heights of 100 meters, radioing images of the earth to a ground-based laptop. Heafitz’s software assembles the pictures into a 360-degree mosaic of the launch site. TacShot could be carried in a soldier’s backpack and deployed for aerial reconnaissance or used to assess damage at disaster sites. Heafitz won the 2002 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize and invested part of the $30,000 award in his company. With a U.S. Air Force contract to conduct proof-of-concept demonstrations, Heafitz has TacShot- and his career- on a successful trajectory.