The humans take over: Tekuma reinvents the control interface
UTS Startup Tekuma, with founders Michael Griffin and Annette McClelland (UTS: MBA, BA Comms), is taking to the skies with a 21st century approach to the drone control interface. Working to make it easier for us to get a handle on this crucial tech, the team were awarded the prize for Best application of research in a UTS Startup at the inaugural UTS Startups Awards.
Give us your elevator pitch. What is your startup?
If you've ever flown a drone or controlled a robot, you know it's counter-intuitive. The two-joystick control interface has not been updated in over 80 years while the devices they control have been revolutionised. New users find the two-joysticks difficult to learn and the other attachments – the cameras and robotic arms – aren’t factored in. Our one-handed six-degrees of freedom controllers are intuitive, universal and robust.
What's the problem your startup is solving? How long have you been working on it?
The current two-joystick manual user interface is flimsy, device restricted and difficult to learn. Michael first discovered how difficult it is to control a drone and its camera at the same time in early 2015 and decided there must be a better way. During Michael’s mechatronics engineering studies, he tested a proof of concept he created against the standard two-joystick interface. His thesis found that his new method increased user confidence, reduced learning curves and meant basic tasks were completed faster. In 2016, Michael wanted to commercialise the technology, and we came together to do that in. Since then we’ve gone on to develop the technology, pitch it around the world and sell our first units.
Why is solving this problem important? Why does it matter to you?
The drone and robotics markets are showing incredible growth in the coming years and how we control these devices is more important than ever. Automation will take some of the burden but there will always be times when humans will need to take manual control of a device. Through interviews with over 50 registered drone operators and testing with over 600 users, we’ve found that having a tactile controller, one you can touch and feel feedback from, is far more intuitive and effective than having accelerometers, gesture control or voice control.
Who's your target audience and why do they need it? Why should it matter to your audience?
Ideally, we’d like to licence out our technology. Our controller can be applied to drones, robots, underwater rovers, forklifts, VR gaming, and more; it has so many applications and we don’t want to limit ourselves to one market. Drone, robot, defence technology manufacturers can all give their users a more intuitive control experience with our controller and we’d like to work with them to do that.
What was your tipping point that prompted you to actually pursue your idea? What would your advice be to anyone at that tipping point?
Michael was told by his professors he should try to commercialise the idea and, when we got accepted into the Hatchery Accelerate program at UTS, Annette took that as the tipping point to quit her full-time job and we both decided to pursue Tekuma.
Our only advice is to take into account your circumstances. Luckily, we have parents who have given us a roof over our heads and an attic to work in. We also both had savings from previous work we had done. You have to determine how much runway you have with the money you want to put in initially and what sort of milestones you want to meet.
What key challenges and successes have you faced so far, or do you anticipate facing?
Challenge: Developing the technology. Inventing something novel, innovative and making it work under the variety of environments and circumstances that exist in the real world is no easy feat. And then you need to get it to a point where you’re comfortable enough to let it out into the world without you.
Success: A few weeks ago, we sold our first prototype units. We sold them to end customers who will act as our Alpha Pilot, using our units and repeatedly checking in with feedback on possible improvements. It’s taken a long time and a lot of work to get to this point and we’re so glad that people are now out there using it.
What's the biggest thing you've learnt so far?
Everything takes longer than you expect it to, and the things that happen fast are the things that you didn’t expect to happen at all.
Who or what inspires you?
Every person who picks up our controller and smiles when using it. Seeing the joy on people’s faces when they discover just how easy it is really keeps us going.
What next big milestone are you going after? What do you need for it and how should people reach you?
Licencing partners. We are looking to the manufacturers who want to leap ahead of their competitors, who care about user experience and want to revolutionise how clients control technology. Please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can check out our website Tekuma.tech and YouTube channel for demonstrations.
By Lourdes Millare & Liam Kennedy, UTS Startups