In her last year of elementary school, Tessie Hartjes had to prepare a presentation for her class. Her topic - how to construct an HTML website – was not the average choice for an eleven year old. “Even the teacher was flabbergasted,” she remembers. “Looking back now, I was kind of nerdy.” Her aptitude for technology has now brought Hartjes into the spotlight for her work on Project Blue Jay at the Technical University of Eindhoven (TU/e). Co-founding and managing the team which developed the world’s first autonomous domestic drone, she has rapidly gained a profile as one of the Brainport region’s most innovative Women in Tech.
Blue Jay grabbed worldwide media attention earlier this year with its Drone Café, created for the 60th Anniversary celebrations of the TU/e. Drones navigated through crowds, took orders and served drinks to over 2000 visitors. Hartjes explains that the idea was to showcase TU/e’s innovative excellence: “We asked ‘how can we give people who don’t normally care about technology, a signature experience?” Sure enough, the Café’s self-guided, drink-delivering drones generated queues, international headlines and commercial interest.
The Blue Jay team brought together 20 students from various technical disciplines. “We built the Drone Café because we wanted to start a conversation,” Hartjes explains; a debate about how drones can be used in a domestic setting. “Our vision for the future is that the drone is like a family member that’s there to interact with you and help you; especially for elderly people living alone or for people with disabilities. We thought ‘well it’s like a pet, but it can have a camera feed; call the emergency number if you fall over; remind you to take your medicine; even use a fire extinguisher’.” A Facebook questionnaire enabled feedback from the public to be incorporated into the development process. “We had a broad idea of where we wanted to go and this gave us direction for the choices we wanted to make,” Hartjes says. “We got feedback for what would be acceptable in your home - boundaries which technical people sometimes miss”.
Hartjes believes that studying technology is all about finding ways to help people live better lives. She chose to study at TU/e partly because of their guiding philosophy to think about new ways to implement useful technologies into society. This in turn, has synergies within the wider Brainport region, where innovations are developed to meet societal challenges. Hartjes says: “The type of students we have here are intrinsically technology minded, but they want to develop technology in order to do good. The nicest thing is that you don’t have any commercial interest so you can do what other people are not doing, and that’s the most interesting part -because you’re really on the cutting edge of the technology”.
There was a steep learning curve and a short time-frame to get the Drone Café up and running, but the team received strong support from both University and the Brainport business community. Hartjes believes this unique collaborative environment played a key role: “The informal network in Brainport is very important. We presented at a Drinks and Demo’s event on the High Tech Campus and that’s how we got the link into Philips.” The team used Philips’ LED lighting technology to create the drone’s navigation system. Along with several other local tech companies such as drone start-up Avular, sponsors provided not just expertise and state of the art equipment, but valuable support. Hartjes remembers: “At our first demonstration, the drone crashed and the team hit rock bottom. But our sponsors said ‘don’t worry, we love the drone, just tell us what you need’. It was very re-assuring.”
Another challenge faced by Hartjes was managing a diverse team of tech students. Her experience on the hockey field helped her: “As captain of my team I learnt a lot about how to get a group of different people working together towards one goal. I’ve used a lot of those skills on this project, for example, understanding other people, giving feedback, and admitting when you’re at fault and taking care of it.”
Hartjes presents Blue Jay to Prime Minister Mark Rutte at Hannover Messe, the World’s biggest industrial fair, April 2016
Hartjes is now stepping back from Blue Jay to finish her Masters degree. The project has generated commercial interest, but she envisages a couple more years of technical development before it would be ready to spin off into a start-up: “The environment and infrastructure in this region are great for new start-ups, but Blue Jay’s technology, team and management just isn’t in the right place yet.”
So, what does the future hold for Hartjes? “Blue Jay has given me a taste of what it is to be an entrepreneur because you get so many other things on your plate than in a normal study, which really gives you a broader scope. The degree of responsibility is also different - you have a budget and you need to think about what you can and can’t do.” Hartjes also learned that technical talent isn’t enough for successful innovation, you have to bridge the gap between the academic and business world. “I think there are a lot of people who know a lot of technology, but don’t have a feeling about how to sell or take a risk” she says. “I think I would be somebody not afraid to take a risk; a leader.”
Hartjes feels that her skill ultimately lies in making the connections between the tech and the opportunity: “I think nowadays if you look at the exponential growth of technology the problem mostly isn’t the technology itself - its either there or you can develop it to be there - but you need to know why it needs to work.” This is where she can really add value: “I think my role would be strategic - starting with identifying and understanding the problem and imagining how you can take a technology and put them together to connect the dots. It’s connecting the dots that motivates me. Putting it all together and then making a better society.”
Written by Victoria McKenzie © Brainport Development