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Rocket-launched photo system wins ISN contest

"TacShot" team leader Andrew Heafitz (right) looks on as Army Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Kelso (left) and Col. Ernest Forrest, judges at the Soldier Design Competition, review project submissions.
"TacShot" team leader Andrew Heafitz (right) looks on as Army Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Kelso (left) and Col. Ernest Forrest, judges at the Soldier Design Competition, review project submissions.
Photo / L. Barry Hetherington

Iraq and Afghanistan may be half a world away, but the challenges that American soldiers are facing there were foremost on everyone's minds at the final judging of MIT's first annual Soldier Design Competition on Tuesday, Feb. 17.

About 150 people gathered to watch nine teams demonstrate prototypes of practical, non-weapons devices designed to solve real problems faced by infantry soldiers as well as police, firefighters and other emergency workers. The event was sponsored by the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN).

Winning first prize and $5,000 was "TacShot," a rocket-launched aerial reconnaissance photography system invented by Pete Augenbergs, a junior in mechanical engineering; Chris Pentacoff, a junior in aeronautics and astronautics; Andrew Heafitz (S.B. 1991, S.M.); and freshman Fred Gay. The system would allow a soldier to get a quick bird's-eye view of surrounding territory by launching a small, inexpensive rocket that sends photographs back to a land-based computer.

The "Surreptiles" team won the second-place award of $3,000 for a system to translate the silent hand-arm signals soldiers use in stealth situations into computerized messages for use when individuals are not in visual contact. Team members were Byron Hsu, Forrest Liau, David Lin and Han Xu (all sophomores in materials science and engineering), and Tony Eng, a lecturer in electrical engineering and computer science.

Third prize and $2,000 went to mechanical engineering juniors Matthew Carvey and Benjamin Smith as "Team TXI" for a parachute release mechanism using accelerometers and a cable-release motor.

Other prototypes presented at the event included two different designs for pocket-sized bolt cutters, a multicolored flashlight, an electricity generator that runs on body heat, and a wearable microclimate cooling system. About half the entries addressed challenges provided by the U.S. Army while the rest were ideas that originated with the teams.

"We have some great young minds at work here. In the not too distant future, these ideas could be benefiting our soldiers," said Maj. Gen. John Doesburg, one of the contest judges. He is the commanding general of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command.

Several teams, including all three winners, are pursuing collaborative relationships with the Army, as well as patenting and commercialization of their technologies.

"The most valuable thing from this competition has been the exposure and meeting people from the military. I've been invited down to Fort Benning, Ga., where they work on Infantry equipment. Working with people like that is exactly what I need to do next," said Heafitz, leader of the first-place "TacShot" team.

"We see dramatic examples in the news every day of how much danger these guys face in Iraq and elsewhere," said Professor Ned Thomas, director of the ISN. "I'm excited that so many MIT undergraduates in particular have come out for this competition and demonstrated some amazing engineering."

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A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 25, 2004.

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