Student Spotlight: Brian Buss - Controlling MARLO

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Brian Buss
Brian Buss standing next to MARLO, showing the inside of the robot. Also shown is a side shot of MARLO.

Brian Buss
PhD Candidate
Specialty: Control Systems, Robotics
Advisor: Jessy Grizzle, Jerry W. and Carol L. Levin Professor of Engineering
Honor: NSF Gaduate Research Fellowship

Brian Buss arrived at Michigan in 2009 as a first year graduate student, ready to pursue research in the area of Control Systems with Jessy Grizzle, Jerry W. and Carol L. Levin Professor of Engineering. He began modeling glucose regulation in critical patients and designing feedback controls and algorithms for insulin dosing. Then, in 2011, Brian changed focus to work on the bipedal robot, MARLO, the successor to the world-famous bipedal robot known as MABEL.

One of his first tasks was to use simulation and analysis to develop a feedback control law that would allow MARLO to walk in place on peg feet. This simulation study helped prepare him for a more challenging task: designing the first successful 3D walking controller. Teaching MARLO to take her first steps was a journey fraught with mechanical setbacks. However, MARLO and her creators persevered, and she is now walking unaided (MABEL was attached to a boom that kept her from falling sideways).

Brian is now researching ways to improve the feedback control models in order to allow MARLO to walk in place and navigate basic outdoor terrain under high-level human control. This level of robotic bipedal locomotion has never been done by a robot with so few actuators (motors), and watching his models come to life is what drives him:

“It’s beautiful when the math actually works out on something physical.”

YouTube channel

Brian is working hard to help MARLO transition independently between walking and standing, and hopes she will soon be sauntering about the North Campus Diag. He believes we will one day see bipedal robots like MARLO deployed in situations such as wilderness search and rescue, fire fighting and disaster response.

One of the most promising applications of this research is in prosthetic design. According to Brian, similar technology is currently being implemented to control powered prosthetics that will help disabled individuals recover agility and achieve a more natural, comfortable gait.

Why Michigan

When asked what brought him to Michigan, Brian simply answered, “Systems.” He wanted a program that was strong in control, communications, and signal processing. He made his final decision to come to Michigan only after visiting campus.

“First of all, Ann Arbor is a beautiful town and Michigan has an amazing campus. Then, after meeting with some of the professors, and Jessy in particular, I knew I didn’t want to go anywhere else,” said Brian. Years later, he’s happy his first impressions were right. “Working with Jessy is phenomenal. He loves working and he loves teaching. He gives us plenty of freedom to explore and try new things, and yet he has all the background to give you good guidance when you need it. As a person and mentor he is unbeatable.”

When not in the lab working on MARLO, Brian spends quality time with his wife and two young sons. The family likes to explore the outdoors and canoe on the Huron River, and Brian and his older son love to romp through the woods behind their home.

After finishing his program, Brian plans to work in industry for 10 to 15 years before possibly returning to academia as a professor.

May 28, 2014