Tony Tao

Massachusetts Institute of Technology
A Small, Mid-Air-Deployable, Folding Electric Drone, and Adaptable Aircraft Manufacturing (AAM) Architecture
Graduate Winner

Tony Tao, a PhD student in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) describes himself as someone who, from a young age, just wanted to “make cool stuff.”

When Tony, who is originally from Wayne, Pa., was about 7 years old, his family acquired several second-hand tubs of random LEGO and K’NEX pieces. He dug through the pieces, seeking the parts he needed to build new things—with no instructions. “Cars, airplanes, spaceships—I made them all,” he recalls. “I was the Elon Musk of LEGOSs and K’NEX.”

Later in his youth, Tony began to build aircraft. He started with tiny rubber-band-powered airplanes and progressed to remote-controlled aerobatic performance planes and replicas of World War II fighters. He was especially taken with gliders powered only by wind and air currents; building and flying them taught him much about design and the motions of air. “I was hooked on the poetry that is flight,” he recalls.

He’s progressed to designing larger aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) as a graduate student at MIT. His latest invention is Locust, a micro-UAV that can fly in swarms at high altitude to capture and transmit data. Tony led a team in developing the vehicle (which was also the subject of his master’s thesis); after that, work on the project continued at MIT Lincoln Laboratory. In addition, he has developed the Adaptable Aircraft Manufacturing (AAM) architecture, which enables companies to build airplanes faster and at lower cost through a system that generates parts on demand. He also led a student team in inventing an amphibious airplane that could right itself if flipped over in rough waters.  Tony received the 2017 $15,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize in the “Drive it!” category in recognition of his inventive work.

Tony received a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from Pennsylvania State University in 2010. He received a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from MIT in 2012 and expects to complete a PhD in the same field in 2017. He is a teaching assistant in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro) at MIT, lecturing in a capstone course on vehicle engineering. He serves as the test pilot for many AeroAstro small-aircraft projects. He’s also the long-time graduate advisor to the MIT Design, Build, Fly (DBF) team, which competes in international model aircraft competitions. 

Tony has also served as a consultant for Skydio, a drone-autopilot startup based in Redwood City, Calif., and has done mission design and simulation for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.