Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2017

Access Restrictions

Access restricted until 07/13/2018

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Industrial Engineering

First Advisor

Nathan Fethke

Second Advisor

Geb Thomas


Accurate risk assessment tools and methods are necessary to understand the relationship between occupational exposure to physical risk factors and musculoskeletal disorders. Ergonomists typically consider direct measurement methods to be the most objective and accurate of the available tools. However, direct measurement methods are often not used due to cost, practicality, and worker/workplace disruption.

Inertial measurement units (IMUs), a relatively new direct measurement technology used to assess worker kinematics, are attractive to ergonomists due to their small size, low cost, and ability to reliably capture information across full working shifts. IMUs are often touted as a field-capable alternative to optical motion capture systems (OMCs). The error magnitudes of IMUs, however, can vary significantly (>15°) both within and across studies. The overall goals of this thesis were to (i) provide knowledge about the capabilities and limitations of IMUs in order to explain the inconsistencies observed in previous studies that assessed IMU accuracy, and (ii) provide guidance for the ergonomics community to leverage this technology. All three studies in this dissertation systematically evaluated IMUs using a repetitive material transfer task performed by thirteen participants with varying movement speeds (15, 30, 45 cycles/minute) and magnetic disturbance (absent, present). An OMC system was used as the reference device.

This first study systematically evaluated the effects of motion speed and magnetic disturbance on the spatial orientation accuracy of an inertial measurement unit (IMU) worn on the hand. Root-mean-square differences (RMSD) exceeded 20° when inclination measurements (pitch and roll) were calculated using the IMU’s accelerometer. A linear Kalman filter and a proprietary, embedded Kalman filter reduced inclination RMSD to < 3° across all movement speeds. The RMSD in the heading direction (i.e., about gravity) increased (from < 5° to 17°) under magnetic disturbance. The linear Kalman filter and the embedded Kalman filter reduced heading RMSD to < 12° and < 7°, respectively. This study indicated that the use of IMUs and Kalman filters can improve inclinometer measurement accuracy. However, magnetic disturbances continue to limit the accuracy of three-dimensional IMU motion capture.

The goal of the second study was to understand the capability of IMU inclinometers to improve estimates of angular displacements and velocities of the upper arm. RMSD and peak displacement error exceeded 11° and 28° at the fastest transfer rate (45 cycles/min) when upper arm elevation was calculated using the IMU accelerometer. The implementation of a Kalman filter reduced RMS and peak errors to < 1.5° and < 2.3°, respectively. Similarly, the RMS and peak error for accelerometer-derived velocities exceeded 81°/s and 221.3°/s, respectively, at the fastest transfer rate. The Kalman filter reduced RMS and peak errors to < 9.2°/s and < 25.1°/s, respectively.

The third study was conducted to evaluate the relationship between magnetic field strength variation and magnetic heading deviation. In this study, the presence of the metal plate increased magnetic heading deviations from < 12° (90th-10th percentile) to approximately 30°. As expected, the magnetic field strength standard deviation increased from 1.0uT to 2.4uT. While this relationship may differ across other sources of magnetic disturbance, the results reinforce the notion that local magnetic field disturbances should be minimized when using IMUs for human motion capture.

Overall, the findings from this thesis contribute to the ergonomics community’s understanding of the current capabilities and limitations of IMUs. These studies suggest that while the touted capabilities of the IMUs (full-body motion capture in workplace settings) may be unattainable based on current sensor technology, these sensors are still significantly more accurate than the accelerometer-based inclinometers commonly used by ergonomists to measure motions of the upper arms.


Biomechanics, Ergonomics, Inertial Measurement Units, Inertial Motion Capture, Motion Capture, Occupational Ergonomics


x, 109 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 89-97).


Copyright © 2017 Howard Chen

Available for download on Friday, July 13, 2018