Biological Systems Engineering


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Phenotyping approaches have been considered as a vital component in crop breeding programs to improve crops and develop new high-yielding cultivars. However, traditional field-based monitoring methods are expensive, invasive, and time-intensive. Moreover, data collected using satellite and airborne platforms are either costly or limited by their spatial and temporal resolution. Here, we investigated whether low-cost unmanned/unoccupied aerial systems (UASs) data can be used to estimate winter wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) nitrogen (N) content, structural traits including plant height, fresh and dry biomass, and leaf area index (LAI) as well as yield during different winter wheat growing stages. To achieve this objective, UAS-based red–green–blue (RGB) and multispectral data were collected from winter wheat experimental plots during the winter wheat growing season. In addition, for each UAS flight mission, winter wheat traits and total yield (only at harvest) were measured through field sampling for model development and validation. We then used a set of vegetation indices (VIs), machine learning algorithms (MLAs), and structure-from-motion (SfM) to estimate winter wheat traits and yield. We found that using linear regression and MLAs, instead of using VIs, improved the capability of UAS-derived data in estimating winter wheat traits and yield. Further, considering the costly and time-intensive process of collecting in-situ data for developing MLAs, using SfM-derived elevation models and red-edge-based VIs, such as CIre and NDRE, are reliable alternatives for estimating key winter wheat traits. Our findings can potentially aid breeders through providing rapid and non-destructive proxies of winter wheat phenotypic traits.