Comparison of ground cover estimates from experiment plots in cotton, sorghum and sugarcane based on images and ortho-mosaics captured by UAV


Ground cover is an important physiological trait affecting crop radiation capture, water-use efficiency and grain yield. It is challenging to efficiently measure ground cover with reasonable precision for large numbers of plots, especially in tall crop species. Here we combined two image-based methods to estimate plot-level ground cover for three species, from either an ortho-mosaic or undistorted (i.e. corrected for lens and camera effects) images captured by cameras using a low-altitude unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Reconstructed point clouds and ortho-mosaics for the whole field were created and a customised image processing workflow was developed to (1) segment the ‘whole-field’ datasets into individual plots, and (2) ‘reverse-calculate’ each plot from each undistorted image. Ground cover for individual plots was calculated by an efficient vegetation segmentation algorithm. For 79% of plots, estimated ground cover was greater from the ortho-mosaic than from images, particularly when plants were small, or when older/taller in large plots. While there was a good agreement between the ground cover estimates from ortho-mosaic and images when the target plot was positioned at a near-nadir view near the centre of image (cotton: R2 = 0.97, sorghum: R2 = 0.98, sugarcane: R2 = 0.84), ortho-mosaic estimates were 5% greater than estimates from these near-nadir images. Because each plot appeared in multiple images, there were multiple estimates of the ground cover, some of which should be excluded, e.g. when the plot is near edge within an image. Considering only the images with near-nadir view, the reverse calculation provides a more precise estimate of ground cover compared with the ortho-mosaic. The methodology is suitable for high throughput phenotyping for applications in agronomy, physiology and breeding for different crop species and can be extended to provide pixel-level data from other types of cameras including thermal and multi-spectral models.

Functional Plant Biology
Bangyou Zheng
Bangyou Zheng
Data Scientist / Digital Agronomist

a research scientist of digital agriculture at the CSIRO.