| Michaela Nesvarova | Photo by: Rikkert Harink

Edwin Dertien: The man of many talents

To call Edwin Dertien a Renaissance man would not be an overstatement. He is a researcher and a teacher at the University of Twente, a self-employed engineer, an artist, a musician and a co-founder of ASSortiMENS, a center for people with autism. Let us paint you a picture of his busy life.

Edwin Dertien’s connection to the University of Twente dates back to 1997, when he started studying Electrical Engineering with a MSc track in mechatronics, which he followed with a PhD research in the same field at the Robotics and Mechatronics lab. However, he was never ‘only’ a student or ‘only’ a researcher. Already during his studies, Edwin Dertien founded his own company focused on engineering, music and art projects; and as a PhD candidate working on the pipe inspection robot, he was also a member of the Creative Technology development team. 

At the UT, Edwin Dertien currently holds the position of Assistant Professor in Social and Robotic Technologies. His fondness for robots is evident as soon as you step into his office.

For the past ten years, Edwin Dertien was mainly involved in the development of the pipe inspection robot ‘PIRATE’. Now, he is diving into the field of social robotics. ‘At the moment, I don’t have an officially formed research project yet,’ he says. ‘So to start somewhere, I decided to adopt all the social robots that are just lying around the UT and that I can get my hands on. My question is: Why? Why aren’t they being used? Did they fail in their function? Why is nobody taking care of them? A ‘fringe’ research project I can start with is reviving some of the robots at the university and seeing how they could be reused.’

On top of his role as a researcher, Edwin Dertien is a very active teacher of Creative Technology, a program which he helped to set up from its very beginning.

Robotics and technology also play an important role in Edwin Dertien’s work outside the university. In his Enschede-based workshop, he has created many interesting projects over the years. 

One of them is the ‘Dancing White Man’, a realistically looking human-like robot, which – as the name suggests – is able to dance. The robot was made in collaboration with Leonard van Munster and it has been on display in Amsterdam for the past six years, but it is being refurbished in Edwin Dertien’s workshop at the moment. 

Besides the Dancing White Man, Edwin Dertien’s private workshop is currently occupied by Furbies. ‘Furbies are robotic toys. Their owners are meant to teach them different things,’ explains the engineer. The furbies I like came to the market in 1998 and most of them are now just sitting in attics and boxes. My goal is to think of a retirement plan for these tiny social creatures that we bought and abandoned.’ 

‘Furbies’ photo by: Ani Kehayova

Toying around with Furbies certainly isn’t the only thing that keeps Edwin Dertien busy. Music is another of his passions. And as with everything he does, he combines this hobby with his other interests, more specifically engineering. Instead of simply playing the piano, he plays the piano in the streets. That wouldn’t be anything that special, except this piano is on wheels. Yes, it drives.  

This mobile piano is an original creation of Edwin Dertien and Wout Zweers. If you like the idea of playing music on the go, you can take a look at the piano at the Maker Festival Twente 2017 in Enschede at the end of May.  

‘There is still one big part of my story missing: ASSortiMENS,’ points out Edwin Dertien as we discuss all his activities. ‘In 2010, I worked with an intern who had autism. It was a very successful collaboration and, together with his social psychiatric nurse Michel ten Buuren, it got us thinking that there are many more people like him - highly educated and technically skilled people, who don’t have many professional options. That led us to starting a foundation for people with autism: in 2013, ASSortiMENS was born.’ 

ASSortiMENS is now a care institute with about fifty clients. With a center located in Oldenzaal and a center in ‘de Lutte’, the foundation, in its essence, provides occupational therapy for people with autism. ‘Our main purpose is using talents of people with autism and their love for technology to create something new,’ explains Dertien, who works in ASSortiMENS two days a week. ‘We provide them with a place to learn, a daily rhythm and, in an indirect way, we also help our clients to find regular jobs through the center’s network.’

One of the main focuses in the ASSortiMENS’s workshop is recycling. Using the local high-tech facilities, such as laser cutters or 3D printers, the center’s clients work on various projects reusing old materials.   

At the moment, a number of the clients are for instance involved in CAD design, constructing and photographing  wooden cut-out lamps or other design pieces, which will soon also be sold online via a web shop ‘Design by accident.’  

Although many creations lying around the ASSortiMENS’s headquarters definitely have a ‘shelf appeal’ and could be successfully sold in larger numbers, the association doesn’t want to be involved in a serial production. ‘Our main point is allow people to be creative, let them work on crazy projects and set them in motion,’ says Edwin Dertien while he tinkers about, multitasking and moving from one project to the next. He seems to never stop. But he also seems to enjoy it. As he says: ‘All these strange combinations of different projects force me to make connections that amplify each other.’