Interview with Tekuma Co-Founders, Michael & Annette on Tekuma & One-Handed Controller for Robots and Drones
Michael Griffin & Annette McClelland
Our UAV Interview Series is not short of surprises, and often we interview key movers and shakers in the drone field. In this occasion, we have two young entrepreneurs knocking our doors. They are Michael Griffin and Annette McClelland, Tekuma co-founders.
What is unique about them is they jointly developed a patent-pending new drone controller design that can be operated one-handed for drones and robots. As a start-up, their goal is to attract more licensing partners and customers. Their invention brought to life after Michael felt traditional dual joystick remote controller had made UAV operation unnecessarily tricky and cumbersome.
In this interview, they will share how they got started, their challenges on launching the own company, how their drone controller design is different from traditional counterparts, what is their favorite drone, the prediction about the future of drones, and so on. Remember, this is an exclusive interview so you will not find it elsewhere and do not miss this golden opportunity to read what the co-founders have to say about Tekuma and its revolutionary product.
Welcome Michael & Annette, tell us about yourself and your background?
We went to high school together in Sydney. Michael studied Mechatronics engineering at Macquarie University, and I studied Communications then an MBA at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). We’re both martial artists, Michael does fencing, and I do taekwondo. We’ve spent many years mentoring with youth, Michael in STEM outreach, and me in wellbeing and resilience.
How did you get started in the drone industry?
Michael was out in the Australian bush trying to fly a drone and control its camera at the same time. Finding it so challenging, he thought there must be a better way. So, Michael built one. Michael tested a proof of concept of our controller against a standard two joystick interface as part of his thesis in 2015, proving it to be more intuitive, he decided to commercialize, I came on board to help him do that. We applied to my university accelerator in 2016, were accepted, I quit my full-time job, and we launched Tekuma.
Tell us about your company, what it is, and how did the company get started?
Tekuma is a human-machine interface company. Our first controller enables a user to manipulate six-degrees of freedom, force-based with one hand. Through UTS Startups, Hatchery+ Accelerator, we started Tekuma. At the end of 2016, Michael built the first hardware prototype. Over three years we’ve remained completely bootstrapped our company taking us across Australia, US, Europe and Asia.
Tell us about your team and what makes them great. Any interesting stories about how the team came together?
Michael builds, Annette sells. We do have very different, complementary skills. We have known one another for over a decade, so know very well what one another is best at, how to take advantage of that and how to work together. We have very similar values and diverse cultural experiences, which helps us roll with the punches that come in starting your own company.
Tell us about your one-handed controller for drones. What's your unique selling point?
Our controller is robust, universal, and intuitive. It reduces the time, cost, personnel, and most of all, training required to get jobs done. It can control not just drones, but rovers, forklifts, games, and other devices too. The unique selling point is the one-handedness, how this translates directly to device movement and the lack of training required to become competent and retain that learning.
What is your favorite drone to fly and why?
That’s a tough question, I (Michael) have two. One of my favorites is the custom drone that I built to test for our first proof of concepts for our business. I made it for my Engineering undergrad thesis. It was utterly over-engineered, but that was an important design choice to help prevent weather impacts on my data. Sadly, this drone is now collecting dust as we work on the startup. My other favorite drone is the Parrot Mambo, this drone is on my list since they are sturdy, robust, safe and can be flown indoors (or only indoors really). We use this drone daily to demonstrate and show off our tech.
Have you ever crashed a drone? What was your worst experience?
So many times. When I (Michael) was coding the proof of concept for our controller, the hardware would vibrate, this would confuse the drone and one time caused it to turn vertical and fly towards my face. Thankfully, the hills hoist clothesline was in the way. There were some instances that the drone went through a tree and came out on top with only green sap marks on the propellers while the branches landed on the ground.
Who are most of your clients, or your partners?
Our first partners are UnderseaROV. They build, deliver, and pilot underwater rovers for custom applications such as oceanography and ship maintenance. We’ve also sold units to high schools in the FIRST Robotics program. We’re looking into accessibility applications, seeing if there are ways we can modify our controller to make it accessible to quadriplegics for drone and robotics control. We’re excited to gain new partners in new industries, collaborating with them so they can give their users a friendlier control experience.
Are there any upcoming developments at your company you want to share with our readers?
We are currently in the US as part of Austrade and CSIRO’s Civilian Defence Landing Pad in San Francisco. We’re seeing what market opportunities exist for us here and are very open to discussing collaboration possibilities.
What have been some particularly memorable events you've participated? What did you take away from that experience?
We had a fantastic time with Venture Cup’s University Startup Challenge in Denmark. We met founders from all over the world, spent some time talking opportunities in delivery with Maersk and came away with USD5000 winning the NextGen Logistics category. The grand size of electronics conferences in Hong Kong, often with over 5000 exhibitors is incredible, the ability for so many companies working on the smallest of components or niches amazed us as to what population size can do for a market. We hope to attend some of the biggest events in the US and Europe soon.
What are some of the characteristics of a great drone controller?
Ease of use and comfort, always. We’ve tested our controller with over 600 users, with complete newbie 3 year-olds to experienced pilots in their 80’s, all have been able to pick up the controller and be doing bank turns within a few minutes. There’s so little explanation needed, push the orb in the direction you want to fly – up, down, left, right, forward, back, twist for yaw. Your other hand is completely free to focus on camera control, robotic arms, or other peripherals.
What advice will you give to others who want to get started flying drones?
Start with a cheap toy drone, something you can comfortably fly in a large room, bump into people without hurting them, and not be devastated if it crashes and is irreparable. Get in touch to purchase a developer kit for our controller and share the news of just how much easier it is.
What advances in drone technology are you excited about?
The accessibility. Cheaper, smaller, lighter, faster. Awareness, acceptance, and better practices within the community globally.
You mentioned dual joystick controllers hadn't been updated in over 80 years. Why do you feel the addition of camera controls made drone operation unnecessarily hard? And how's your new controller design will address these issues?
Currently there are a few workarounds people use when piloting a GoPro camera drone. They can use two pilots, one on the drone and one on the camera, collaborating to get the shots they want, obviously training together takes a lot of commitment and time to get right, this is the solution we see most professional agencies using.
One-person operations tend to use their pinky and ring fingers to control the dials for the camera controls, we’ve witnessed some aerial cinematographers switch off drone movement control entirely so they can use the joystick for the camera and they leave the drone hovering while they move the camera.
There are thousands of schools that teach people to fly drones, often taking months to make pilots confident and competent and getting the shots they want. We find our users pick up our controller and with a sentence Move the orb the way you want the drone to fly they’re off, within a few minutes or even seconds they’re comfortable maneuvering around obstacles, performing bank turns, doing it all with their other hand free to focus on camera or other peripheral control.
Where do you see drones headed in 5 years? 10 years?
Clearly the drone applications are expanding, the prevalence, the affordability. However, we do feel it comes down to ease of use. More than half of first-time pilots we’ve spoken to purchase a drone and haven’t taken it out of the box because they’ve been afraid to crash it. Drones will only become common to the everyday user when they’re easier to fly and when the laws are easier to navigate. We hope to play a part in making drones more accessible to everyone.
Check out Tekuma on the web!
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