Steering a robot with only the tongue

The robotic arm that will be controlled by the Itongue is in the foreground. In the blurry background, people look on.

writer icon Kristine Hanson     DR/TKS AALBORG   |   Tech     🕐 14. Sep. 2018

Researchers in Denmark are making significant developments in the field of robotics. They have designed a method of steering robots using only the tongue, and are investigating ways to steer using only the brain.

This technology has the potential to transform the lives of people living with reduced mobility, such as people with spinal chord injuries or brain injuries, multiple sclerosis, or ALS.

From concept to reality
The company behind the device, TKS Technology, came about as a result of the research of Lotte Andreasen Struijk, a lecturer at Aalborg University. She heads the research project that has brought the product from concept to reality.

The robot-steering device is called Itongue. It fits inside the user’s mouth, resting against the roof of the mouth and fitting snugly up to the teeth. Once Itongue is in place, users can operate the device using their tongue to access the sensors.

The device then controls a robotic arm which can be attached to the user's wheelchair.

Tongue piercing
In order to use an Itongue, the user must have their tongue pierced. Having a piecing enables them to operate the device more easily, as well as improving the touch accuracy. The piercing also reduces the strain on the tongue muscle.

The solution is invisible, discrete, and empowering. People who have lost their independence will be able to regain their freedom and live with less constraint.

Testing out the Itongue
A mini-documentary from DR, released in 2017, followed Bente Rey as she tested out the Itongue. The documentary showed how she quickly progressed from a rudimentary control of the robotic arm to perfectly pouring a bottle of water into a glass without spilling a drop.

It was clearly a profound and moving moment for Rey. She spoke of the ways this device would change her life, such as being able to play with her grandchildren. She was moved to tears as she said that the technology was “totally amazing”.

Advanced System
Together with clinical experts from the Centre for Spinal Injury, and robotics experts, Andreasen Struijk is developing an advanced robot control system. It is intended for people with a progressive illness such as ALS, which will gradually cause them to lose control of their muscles. The advanced system will enable those people to continue to use the device.

Andreasen Struijk explained that “as the disease progresses, many can still use the tongue. But eventually they may not be able to move anything at all, but they will be able to steer with the brain.”

Finn Sellebjerg, professor of Neurology at Rigshospitalet, feels that this new research is very interesting and relevant, particularly for patients with progressive muscle deterioration.

“A good interface between human and machine will be a huge advantage for them. It has enormous meaning to be more mobile”
, he said.

Funding the research
The Independent Research Fund in Denmark recently awarded just under 6 million DKK to Andreasen Struijk and her research team, to further their efforts towards developing the advanced robot control system.

The brain-based control system will work via electrodes placed on the outside of the head. The electrodes will be able to measure an electrical signal when one thinks of something specific, and send a message to the robot.

Andreasen Struijk has also considered developing controls using flashing lights, which send different instructions to the brain.

"One could have a panel with lights, that flash at different speeds. And so one knows, that when one looks at one particular light, an electrical signal is sent from the brain, which tells the robot to do something", she explained.

Further innovation
TKS Technology offers three other products also designed to improve the quality of life for many disabled people. Ihandle, Ictrl, and Itremor, each one is designed to give the users more and better control over their lives.

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