Scholar uses algorithm to make Christmas tree farming more efficient

May 1, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Most Christmas tree farm owners rely on a low-tech, low-efficiency system to manage their inventory. Penn State student and Schreyer Honors Scholar Juan Munoz Valdez is part of a research effort that is looking to change that.

The graduating mechanical engineering student recently completed his honors thesis, in which he developed an algorithm to analyze and store images of Christmas tree farms taken by unmanned aircraft. Applying that algorithm would provide those owners with detailed maps of their farms that would save them the task of counting their trees by hand and monitoring the health of those trees one-by-one.

The research is part of several projects in the Unmanned Aircraft for Agricultural Applications (UAAA) lab directed by Professor of Mechanical Engineering H. Joseph Sommer III, which also include data collections for apple orchards and predictive imaging for golf course maintenance. The goal of the project is to help scientists and farmers use unmanned aircraft to increase crop yields and reduce production costs.

Part of the challenge for Munoz in his thesis was getting the computer to distinguish trees from things like moss or grass in the images, a task, he said, that isn’t always easy for humans. Using an image editor, Munoz experimented with various filters to determine how to better highlight the trees to distinguish them from other objects, using gradients to determine the centers of the trees.

“It wasn’t perfect,” Munoz said, “but it gave me excitement that there was a way to do this.”

Now a graduating Schreyer Scholar on the University Park campus, Munoz was initially a student at Penn State Abington and a computer science major before he decided to switch to mechanical engineering.

“I needed more physics,” he said, grinning.

That computer science background helped him this past summer, though, when he had an internship developing software for a startup group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that is developing an app that uses sensors in a normal phone to determine how well its user drives a car.

Munoz will graduate with a grade-point average of above 3.8, but he said he became a lot happier when he stopped putting pressure on himself to maintain a perfect 4.0. He is proud of the work he has achieved at Penn State and excited about the future possibilities ahead for him involving machine learning.

“There’s a lot more to learn,” he said. “I’m happy where I am right now, and I’m really grateful.”

The Schreyer Honors College promotes academic excellence with integrity, the building of a global perspective, and creation of opportunities for leadership and civic engagement. Schreyer Honors Scholars, including Gateway Scholars admitted after their first or second year of enrollment, total more than 1,900 students at University Park and 20 commonwealth campuses. They represent the top 2 percent of students at Penn State who excel academically and lead on campus.


Share this story:

facebook linked in twitter email


Jeff Rice



The Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering at Penn State is one of the nation’s largest and most successful engineering departments. We serve more than 1,000 undergraduate students and more than 330 graduate students

We offer B.S. degrees in mechanical engineering and nuclear engineering as well as resident (M.S., Ph.D.) and online (M.S., M.Eng.) graduate degrees in nuclear engineering and mechanical engineering. MNE's strength is in offering hands-on experience in highly relevant research areas, such as energy, homeland security, biomedical devices, and transportation systems.

Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering

137 Reber Building

The Pennsylvania State University

University Park, PA 16802-4400

Phone: 814-865-2519