by MARY CATHERINE GASTON
It sounds like a fun campfire game: Choose five words at random from a hat, and tell a story using all five. Your words: sailing, rubber, drone, engineer, Guatemala. What story would you tell? If you’re Christian Brodbeck, a research engineer in Auburn’s Department of Biosystems Engineering, the answer would be simple; you’d tell the story of your life.
To tell Christian’s story, though, you have to start with that of his dad, an Alabama native who, as a member of the U.S. Air Force serving in Liberia, met a lovely young lady whose father managed a rubber plantation. The elder Brodbeck fell in love, both with the girl and her family’s business, and decided he wanted to follow in his future father-in-law’s footsteps. He graduated from Auburn in 1974 with a forestry degree and eventually landed a position managing a rubber plantation in Guatemala, where he and his wife raised three sons, Christian, Beau, and Michael.
As a child growing up in Central America, Christian always knew he would go to college in the U.S. As he got older and developed an appreciation for tree farming, it began to make sense for him to attend Auburn, too. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biosystems engineering with a forest engineering emphasis in 2002. In what seemed like a let-down at the time, his plans to work in Europe after graduation fell through, and he landed right back in Auburn, working on research in his former academic department.
After spending a year designing temporary, portable bridges for forest harvesting sites, he was invited to work on a study of the erosion of all-terrain-vehicle trails in the Talladega National Forest.
“I had really enjoyed my year conducting research and decided to continue doing research in a master’s degree program,” Brodbeck says.
This time, his degree would be in civil engineering, and once it was complete, he would be offered a position as a research engineer with the Department of Biosystems Engineering.
“My research 10 years ago began in precision agriculture,” Brodbeck says. “Being a research engineer is a very dynamic field because your research focus tends to change over time as new technologies become available.”
About four years into his precision ag research, national interest in biofuels began to—pardon the expression—explode, and he switched gears to study the conversion of woody biomass, such as pine chips, into electricity and liquid fuels through a process known as gasification.
Recently, however, his focus has changed again, as the agricultural world has become increasingly interested in how unmanned aircraft systems, also known as UASs or drones, can be helpful to farmers. Brodbeck now heads the team that is deploying a small squadron of the devices to assess variations in crop fields and how they can impact yield.
“By using thermal, multi-spectral, near-infrared or just true-color cameras, we can see or detect plant stress,” Brodbeck says. “We can then use these images from the UAS to generate a prescription map that, in turn, can be implemented on the farm.”
Just one of the original five words remains to be woven into this unique story. When Brodbeck isn’t touring the country with Auburn’s mobile gasifier, or turning wood chips into electricity, or buzzing cornfields with a tiny quadcopter, you might find him on—or in—the water. He’s an avid sailor and captains his family’s sailboat on Mobile Bay every chance he gets. He’s also a scuba instructor who leads certification classes in Auburn in his spare time.
Besides these hobbies, Brodbeck enjoys spending time with wife Shanna and daughters Olivia and Emma, who, not surprisingly, love the great outdoors.
VIDEO: Learn more about the work Brodbeck is doing to advance the use of UASs in agriculture.