Current strategies for phenotyping above-ground biomass in field breeding nurseries demand significant investment in both time and labor. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) can be used to derive vegetation indices (VIs) with high throughput and could provide an efficient way to predict forage yield with high accuracy. The main objective of the study is to investigate the potential of UAV-based multispectral data and machine learning approaches in the estimation of oat biomass. UAV equipped with a multispectral sensor was flown over three experimental oat fields in Volga, South Shore, and Beresford, South Dakota, USA, throughout the pre- and post-heading growth phases of oats in 2019. A variety of vegetation indices (VIs) derived from UAV-based multispectral imagery were employed to build oat biomass estimation models using four machine-learning algorithms: partial least squares (PLS), support vector machine (SVM), Artificial neural network (ANN), and random forest (RF). The results showed that several VIs derived from the UAV collected images were significantly positively correlated with dry biomass for Volga and Beresford (r = 0.2-0.65), however, in South Shore, VIs were either not significantly or weakly correlated with biomass. For Beresford, approximately 70% of the variance was explained by PLS, RF, and SVM validation models using data collected during the post-heading phase. Likewise for Volga, validation models had lower coefficient of determination (R2 = 0.20-0.25) and higher error (RMSE = 700-800 kg/ha) than training models (R2 = 0.50-0.60; RMSE = 500-690 kg/ha). In South Shore, validation models were only able to explain approx. 15-20% of the variation in biomass, which is possibly due to the insignificant correlation values between VIs and biomass. Overall, this study indicates that airborne remote sensing with machine learning has potential for above-ground biomass estimation in oat breeding nurseries. The main limitation was inconsistent accuracy in model prediction across locations. Multiple-year spectral data, along with the inclusion of textural features like crop surface model (CSM) derived height and volumetric indicators, should be considered in future studies while estimating biophysical parameters like biomass.
Keywords: UAV/drone; biomass estimation; high throughput phenotyping; machine learning; oats; remote sensing.