Engineering on earth, to the moon, and back!

Engineering on earth, to the moon, and back!

Jun 20
Alan Hansen, Interim Head, Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering

Since joining the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering in 1988 as a visiting scholar, my understanding and appreciation has definitely grown for the remarkable record of ground-breaking contributions of ABE faculty, staff, and students. I’ll admit that my knowledge of ABE’s breadth of work and impact skyrocketed when I recently became interim head of the department. ABE truly embraces and lives out its mission to integrate engineering, technology, and life sciences for enhancement of complex living systems in global agriculture, food, energy, water, and the environment. ABE has a unique advantage in its relationship with not one, but two internationally recognized colleges--ACES and Engineering. This allows us to leverage opportunities for interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary collaborations in furthering our mission as a department.

First, teaching—

ABE courses provide breadth and depth for students, not only for majors in our department but for the whole campus. For example, we have general education courses that address “Water and the Global Environment” and “Humanity and the Food Web.” On the engineering side, our curriculum meets ABET accreditation requirements, but provides flexibility to allow students to pursue many specializations from nanoscale biological engineering to large scale ecological systems engineering; from designing systems for optimal indoor environments to developing systems for addressing needs for outdoor environments; and from food and bioprocess engineering to renewable energy systems engineering. Appropriate scale mechanization is addressed through off-road equipment engineering. Our Technical Systems Management program was created in 1996, evolving from an agricultural mechanization program, providing a broader base related to the bridging of technology and business. Students acquire a strong foundation in the technology arena coupled with knowledge and skills to be effective managers.

Turning to research—

ABE has a remarkable portfolio of projects with competitive and broad sources of funding, including federal, state and corporate. And, those projects have demonstrated impact not just on the local, national, and international dimension, but also extra-terrestrially. ABE has recently had an undergraduate research project to send a miniature greenhouse to the moon! Our technology research ranges from appropriate scale mechanization interventions in developing countries to robots, including drones, equipped with sensors that traverse agricultural fields collecting data regarding plant growth and physiological traits. Some of our researchers develop optimized indoor housing environments for livestock while others investigate the climate-water-food-energy nexus. We’re developing stored thermal energy systems for cooking without fuel, fire, or emissions while designing and building zero energy solar houses. An overarching research topic that is rapidly gaining momentum is data analytics. We are using the strong systems engineering core of our discipline to develop these decision-making tools.

Last, but not least, outreach—

Our extension and outreach efforts and local relevance are noteworthy. We have provided leadership in addressing agricultural safety and health, not only in Illinois but other states, for almost 30 years; drainage and soil conservation impacting nutrient transport to the Gulf; livestock facilities and manure management including certified training; and internationally recognized certified testing of agricultural fans.

Please visit to learn more about us.

rice seed planter in field
On a recent visit to Cambodia, I had the opportunity to operate a prototype rice seed planter that had been developed locally as part of the Appropriate Scale Mechanization Consortium project, a sub-award under the Sustainable Intensification Innovation L