by Pat McSparin // Spring 2010
One relatively modest grant might not seem like enough to change the world. But in the hands of researchers at the UMKC School of Computing and Engineering (SCE), it can help build a better knee, a better bicycle, better concrete, help prevent osteoarthritis, help the elderly recover from falls and even identify who’s telling the truth and who’s hiding something.
Thanks to a $263,685 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), SCE’s Human Motion Lab is being put to work finding those solutions. The grant, titled “Major Research Instrumentation: Acquisition of an Experimental Platform to Support Research and Educational Activities in Human Motion,” was authored by SCE assistant professors of mechanical engineering Greg King and Trent Guess, and assistant professors of electrical engineering Reza Derakhshani and Walter Leon-Salas. It is one of about 11,500 awarded from a pool of approximately 44,000 requests.
“The lab consists of three main pieces of equipment,” King says. “Six motion capture cameras that emit near infrared light. The light is reflected off of markers on the subject’s body and triangulated so we can calculate the position of the markers. “Then there are four force plates in the floor. These are like really expensive bathroom scales, but much more accurate. They measure the vertical and horizontal force your body is exerting on the scale.”
The third piece of equipment used in the Human Motion Lab is the EMG, or Electromyography system. The EMG is a series of sensors that measures and evaluates the electrical signals that the brain sends muscles when they contract. The researchers shared the common goal of the grant, but their intended uses of the Human Motion Lab are quite varied. “Dr. Leon-Salas is interested in developing wearable hardware that can be used to track motion,” King says. “Dr. Derakhshani does a lot of biosignal processing and biocomputation, using a computer algorithm called a neural network to look at biological signals.”
King and Guess both use the lab to study musculoskeletal biomechanics, King from a more experimental point of view and Guess for computational modeling. “One of the projects I’m working on is related to studying balance in the elderly,” King explains. “Specifically, I’m looking at what older people do to regain their balance in a fall situation. As they’re falling, often times they’ll take a step to regain their balance. I do some work to study age differences and the step that people take to regain their balance.” King’s research could lead to innovations and therapies that will help the elderly recover faster from falls and even avoid them altogether. Guess’ research is focusing on knees and osteoarthritis.
“We have a project going with University of Missouri-Columbia looking into osteoarthritis,” Guess says. “There are a lot of factors that go into OA, but one of those factors is the mechanical loading on the cartilage. There probably won’t ever be a cure for OA, but if you can notice something in the way a person walks, maybe you can slow the progression of osteoarthritis through intervention or physical therapy.”
The Human Motion Lab could also have a hand in national defense. “We’re using what is called ‘the deception paradigm’ in conjunction with the faculty in the psychology department,” King says. “Essentially, we’re looking at the changes in posture that people exhibit when they’re being deceptive. We instruct the person to tell a lie or not to tell a lie and then we’ll study those differences in posture. So it could have applications for homeland security.”
In addition to research projects, the lab is being incorporated into several classes, and may eventually have applications for athletics. “The UMKC golf coach hasn’t called yet,” King says, “but it’s definitely something these labs are used for.” One of Guess’ classes is using the lab for a project that merges science with competition. “We’re using it in a human-powered vehicle design class,” he says. “It’s for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Human Powered Vehicle Challenge.” The ASME Human Powered Vehicle Challenge (HPVC) is a competition of aerodynamic, human-powered vehicles designed, engineered and built by student teams. The vehicles must be usable in everyday activities, and among the scoring criteria are elegance, ingenuity, practicality and safety.
Hosted in spring 2010 by California State University-Northridge and Central Connecticut State University, getting to the HPVC competition might be as big a challenge as the design itself, but the team is hard at work on its vehicle. “It’s basically a recumbent bicycle that we’re building a fairing around,” Guess says. “Universities around the country compete. But we have this nice (human motion) lab, so we can actually put a subject on a bicycle and actually measure the muscles being used during cycling.”
“The lab lets us see the duration of muscle activity,” says Joe Terriquez, a senior mechanical engineering student and the project manager for UMKC’s 2010 Human Powered Vehicle Team. “We can actually map the body components and how they move in time, so we can further understand the manipulation of angles of the rider’s position and how his muscles are used. It really helps from an engineering standpoint.”
The real world experience is something Terriquez and the team are not taking lightly. “It’s a fierce competition, and the amount of technology that goes into it is startling. It gives UMKC students the opportunity to put on their resumes that they’ve used these materials. It makes them better engineers.” The School is also using the Human Motion Lab with the University of Missouri-Columbia College of Veterinary Science in a canine gait study, and with the University of Kansas to research knee loads to improve artificial knees. Even UMKC’s civil engineering program is putting it to use in a project to develop a pervious concrete that might result in a safer walking surface. At first glance, the NSF grant seems modest. But with the Human Motion Lab playing an integral part in so many research projects, UMKC researchers say the grant’s impact will be great.