Clovis North High School sophomore John Estrada has qualified for the state science fair four times since middle school. But his project this year, a drought-detecting robot, earned the 16-year-old top honors at the world’s largest science competition, the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair.
One of more than 1,800 competitors from 64 countries, Estrada walked away from this year’s virtual fair with a grand prize: The Gordon E. Moore Award for Positive Outcomes for Future Generations, a title that comes with a $50,000 college scholarship and is awarded to only one student each year. “It’s kind of like living in a dream almost,” says Estrada, who says he had always hoped to qualify for the international competition. “It’s kind of like validation…it shows promise for where I can bring this in the future.”
Estrada built a robotic arm that can detect drought stress in crops using only images of their leaves. Having outfitted the arm with cameras that capture images of crop canopies in both visible and infrared light, he wrote a computer program that then encodes each pixel as a number to indicate drought stress.
After testing it out with the help of mentor David Goorahoo, a professor in Fresno State University’s Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, Estrada says his program, known as the AI Drought-Assessment (AIDA) Model, is just as accurate as an industry drought-monitoring standard known as the crop water stress index, but is simpler and faster.
“I wanted to create an [artificial intelligence] model that would help to just prevent potential crop losses but still prevent the wasting of water,” Estrada says, adding that his upbringing in Fresno inspired him to tackle agricultural problems. “It’s amazing to use computer science to make changes in other sciences.”
Estrada hopes to continue to develop his AIDA Model in his final two years of high school, placing cameras on drones and testing the technology in more of the Valley’s agricultural fields. He plans to study computer science and plant science in college.