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Clovis High Schooler's Drought-Detecting Robot Earns International Science Fair Honors

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John Estrada
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Clovis North sophomore John Estrada reacts to winning a grand prize from the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair during a virtual award ceremony on May 21, 2021.

 

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.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.