Blimps and business collide at the Mason Innovation Exchange


Building a drone and building a business are, at first glance, two very different tasks. Academically, you’d be hard pressed to find a robotics course in a business school, and vice versa. But at the Mason Innovation Exchange (MIX), all that separates these two is a staircase. 

From the fabrication floor to the incubator’s loft, the MIX is demonstrating how principles of entrepreneurship and innovation aren’t so easily siloed with two new courses: BLIMP and Student Innovator Mastermind. 

The MIX BLIMP workshop was an outgrowth of an Office of Naval Research-funded Bio-inspired Lighter-than-air Instructional Mechatronics Program, developed to expand unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)—or drone—education, with a desire to build a pipeline for students to participate in the biannual Defend the Republic lighter-than-air robotics competition. In this course, students learn introductory concepts of UAVs and, within small interdisciplinary groups, build their own blimps with flapping wing mechanisms. 

Daigo Shishika with a silver mylar film balloon during flight testing.
Daigo Shishika helps students flight test their blimps in the Mason Autonomy and Robotics Center (MARC). Photo by Evan Cantwell/Office of University Branding

“We use organic life as the inspiration for these builds,” said instructor Daigo Shishika, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “Students study the biomechanics of fish, insects, and birds, and then use those principles of flight and motion to create their own blimps.” 

Each group learns how to build, program, and control flying robots. Using balloons made of mylar films, the students construct the blimp bodies and mount the electronic components—circuitry, motors, and microcontrollers—while ensuring that the blimp is well balanced. 

At the end of the course, groups present their design and describe what creatures inspired their works: butterflies, stingrays, tuna, and even dragons were referenced when building. 

“This process is meant to be exploratory,” explained Shishika. “I didn’t want to discourage the groups from trying out-of-the-box ideas. The dragon, for example: I wasn’t confident it would work. But they proved me wrong, and demonstrated some technical benefits of that type of wing.”

“As much as we’re teaching them the basics,” Shishika continued, “they’re teaching us new ways of thinking about design and fabrication.” 

Along with the microcredential the students earn upon completion of the course, Shishika hopes they leave with a better sense of creative design and confidence in their ability to design, develop, and deploy robotics. 

“It’s fun to build something from scratch and see it fly,” he said. 

A female student constructs her blue mylar film blimp
BLIMP flight testing in the MARC aviary. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Office of University Branding

The Student Innovator Mastermind course uses a similar approach: building foundations while allowing space for creativity and innovation. George Mason alum Lisa Shapiro, BA Psychology ’03, Med ’06, is a seasoned business owner and entrepreneur. When she started at Mason as the MIX’s assistant director of entrepreneurship programs, the entrepreneurship incubator on the MIX’s second floor was empty. 

“I wanted to reinvigorate the space and provide student innovators with a place to share ideas, develop their businesses, and form a community with other entrepreneurs,” she said. 

The Student Innovator Mastermind program is a six-week mastermind group where 10 Mason student innovators and business founders gather for peer-to-peer collaboration and workshops. The inaugural mastermind cohort included students developing video games, a skincare line, mobile applications, and a business that supports the elderly population with nutritional needs—which was one of the finalists in the 2024 Patriot Pitch competition. 

A key part of the programming was what Shapiro calls “transformational talks”: presentations from industry professionals that the students can immediately apply to their work. Speakers cover topics such as mindset, marketing and branding, goal setting, customer segment, and advice for business ownership. 

“Being able to take what they’ve learned and immediately apply it is super important,” said Shapiro. “Entrepreneurship is super hard. You need the right mindset to be able to handle the ups and downs. I want to get them started off in the right way so they’re better prepared.”

The incubator is also a space for the students to learn from each other. Sharing ideas and challenges is, Shapiro said, a necessary part of the process. “We’ve had a phenomenal response from the students,” she said. “They’re helping each other, recommending professors and other people to meet that could help with their ideas.” 

Honors College student Sahil Jagtap, who is majoring in computer science, participated in the Mastermind and the drone-prototyping programs this semester. “I have a passion for building, making, and breaking stuff. I love doing research on new and unique technologies and their potential to solve real-world problems,” he said. 

The course offerings at the MIX were an opportunity for Jagtap to get hands-on experience in developing and launching tech-based solutions. “The skills I acquired from both programs, such as project management, teamwork, and technical expertise, are invaluable,” he said. “In addition, the mentorship and networking opportunities have connected me with industry professionals and potential collaborators, which will be beneficial as I continue my career in technology and entrepreneurship.” 

Most of all, Shapiro and Shishika both hope that this type of programming keeps students coming back to the MIX. 

“Now that they’ve had a taste of the full process,” Shishika said, “they can focus on the aspect they enjoyed the most and dig deeper, whether that’s robotics, electronics, fabrication, or something else.” 

“The MIX is a space for prototyping,” Shapiro said. “It’s a place for anyone with an idea to come and try to make it a reality.”

Students test their constructed blimps in a large, open industrial lab space, made of colorful mylar film.
Photo by Evan Cantwell/Office of University Branding