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Remote sensing with simulated unmanned aircraft imagery for precision agriculture applications

August 5, 2014

An important application of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) may be remote-sensing for precision agriculture, because of its ability to acquire images with very small pixel sizes from low altitude flights. The objective of this study was to compare information obtained from two different pixel sizes, one about a meter (the size of a small vegetation plot) and one about a millimeter. Cereal rye (Secale cereale) was planted at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center for a winter cover crop with fall and spring fertilizer applications, which produced differences in biomass and leaf chlorophyll content. UAS imagery was simulated by placing a Fuji IS-Pro UVIR digital camera at 3-m height looking nadir. An external UV-IR cut filter was used to acquire true-color images; an external red cut filter was used to obtain color-infrared-like images with bands at near-infrared, green, and blue wavelengths. Plot-scale Green Normalized Difference Vegetation Index was correlated with dry aboveground biomass ( ${mbi {r}} = 0.58$ ), whereas the Triangular Greenness Index (TGI) was not correlated with chlorophyll content. We used the SamplePoint program to select 100 pixels systematically; we visually identified the cover type and acquired the digital numbers. The number of rye pixels in each image was better correlated with biomass ( ${mbi {r}} = 0.73$ ), and the average TGI from only leaf pixels was negatively correlated with chlorophyll content ( ${mbi {r}} = -0.72$ ). Thus, better information for crop requirements may be obtained using very small pixel sizes, but new algorithms based on computer vision are needed for analysis. It may not be necessary to geospatially register large numbers of photographs with very small pixel sizes. Instead, images could be analyzed as single plots along field transects.