Understanding Growth Dynamics and Yield Prediction of Sorghum Using High Temporal Resolution UAV Imagery Time Series and Machine Learning

Sebastian Varela, Taylor Pederson, Carl J. Bernacchi, Andrew D. B. Leakey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) carrying multispectral cameras are increasingly being used for high-throughput phenotyping (HTP) of above-ground traits of crops to study genetic diversity, resource use efficiency and responses to abiotic or biotic stresses. There is significant unexplored potential for repeated data collection through a field season to reveal information on the rates of growth and provide predictions of the final yield. Generating such information early in the season would create opportunities for more efficient in-depth phenotyping and germplasm selection. This study tested the use of high-resolution time-series imagery (5 or 10 sampling dates) to understand the relationships between growth dynamics, temporal resolution and end-of-season above-ground biomass (AGB) in 869 diverse accessions of highly productive (mean AGB = 23.4 Mg/Ha), photoperiod sensitive sorghum. Canopy surface height (CSM), ground cover (GC), and five common spectral indices were considered as features of the crop phenotype. Spline curve fitting was used to integrate data from single flights into continuous time courses. Random Forest was used to predict end-of-season AGB from aerial imagery, and to identify the most informative variables driving predictions. Improved prediction of end-of-season AGB (RMSE reduction of 0.24 Mg/Ha) was achieved earlier in the growing season (10 to 20 days) by leveraging early- and mid-season measurement of the rate of change of geometric and spectral features. Early in the season, dynamic traits describing the rates of change of CSM and GC predicted end-of-season AGB best. Late in the season, CSM on a given date was the most influential predictor of end-of-season AGB. The power to predict end-of-season AGB was greatest at 50 days after planting, accounting for 63% of variance across this very diverse germplasm collection with modest error (RMSE 1.8 Mg/ha). End-of-season AGB could be predicted equally well when spline fitting was performed on data collected from five flights versus 10 flights over the growing season. This demonstrates a more valuable and efficient approach to using UAVs for HTP, while also proposing strategies to add further value.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number1763
JournalRemote Sensing
Issue number9
StatePublished - May 2021


  • Bioenergy crops
  • High throughput phenotyping
  • Machine learning
  • Unmanned aerial vehicles

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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