Logo: University of Southern California

BME Researcher Takes a $2 Million Grip

"The main goal of this project is to understand how to achieve dexterous, approximately optimal control of a hand"
Eric Mankin
October 02, 2008 — A USC expert will lead a $2 million, four-year study on "Reverse Engineering the Human Hand," funded by the National Science Foundation Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation Office.

Associate Professor Francisco Valero-Cuevas of the Viterbi School Department of Biomedical Engineering and the USC Dental School Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy will work with Chang Liu of Northwestern University, Yoky Matsuoka of the University of Washington, and Emanuel Todorov of the University of California, San Diego.
Francisco Valero-Cuevas: hands-on hand research (photo © Phil Channing)

According to the EFRI announcement, "the main goal of this project is to understand how to achieve dexterous, approximately optimal control of a hand by having humans and computers perform familiar but challenging tasks of manipulating objects. Researchers will use the same algorithms both to model human motor control and to go beyond the present state of the art in robotic manipulation.

"Dexterous robotic hands have a wide variety of possible applications in industry, space, and national security. Improved understanding of how humans learn to optimize hand performance will also have broader benefits, particularly for the disabled."

BME Department Chair Michael Khoo hailed the NSF announcement. "Francisco  has been at USC only one year and has continued his extraordinary production of first-rate research on his unusual and highly important specialty, the human hand. We are delighted to have him here, and look forward to continuing outstanding achievements."

Valero-Cuevas, who came to USC in 2007 from Cornell University, is the director of the USC Brain-Body Dynamics Lab, " dedicated to understanding the biomechanics, neuromuscular control and clinical rehabilitation of human mobility, with an emphasis on dexterous hand function. Towards this end, we employ a synergy of experimental and theoretical techniques.

"Our diverse experimental arsenal ranges from EMG recording and custom-made virtual reality modules, detailed characterization of multifinger structure and function, to mapping the function of the human brain with fMRI. These procedures in turn inform theoretical work to characterize complex sensorimotor function through rigorous and anatomically faithful mathematical models.

The Anatomically Correct Testbed Hand has three fully actuated fingers that have the same biomechanical structure as the human hand. This hand is used to understand the human hand's biomechanical structure and neural control strategies, and will serve as a prosthetic and surgical tool one day. (Ellen Garvens, University of Washington)
"While ultimately seeking improved clinical diagnosis and treatment procedures, we emphasize the scientific investigation of the neuromuscular biomechanics of the hand in general, and actively promote the use of this knowledge to improve the design and control of prosthetic and robotic systems."

The USC award was one of only four EFRI awarded in the area of "Cognitive Optimization and Prediction: From Neural Systems to Neurotechnology." EFRI funded eight others in the area of "Future Infrastructure Systems."

"These [two] areas represent two exciting, emerging frontiers of engineering inquiry that can address important national needs and grand engineering challenges," said Sohi Rastegar, director of EFRI. "They will require an interdisciplinary approach to achieve a significant leap or paradigm shift in engineering knowledge."

Competition for all the EFRI awards was vigorous: some 60 pre-proposals were received. EFRI asked for more details on only18 of these, and funded twelve, for a total of $24 million.

The NSF Directorate for Engineering created EFRI in 2006 to fund high-risk, interdisciplinary research that has the potential to transform engineering and other fields.