High throughput field phenotyping for plant height using UAV-based RGB imagery in wheat breeding lines: feasibility and validation
Plant height (PH) is an essential trait in the screening of most crops. While in crops such as wheat, medium stature helps reduce lodging, tall plants are preferred to increase total above-ground biomass. PH is an easy trait to measure manually, although it can be labor-intense depending on the number of plots. There is an increasing demand for alternative approaches to estimate PH in a higher throughput mode. Crop surface models (CSMs) derived from dense point clouds generated via aerial imagery could be used to estimate PH. This study evaluates PH estimation at different phenological stages using plot-level information from aerial imaging-derived 3D CSM in wheat inbred lines during two consecutive years. Multi-temporal and high spatial resolution images were collected by fixed-wing (PlatFW) and multi-rotor (PlatMR) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) platforms over two wheat populations (50 and 150 lines). The PH was measured and compared at four growth stages (GS) using ground-truth measurements (PHground) and UAV-based estimates (PHaerial). The CSMs generated from the aerial imagery were validated using ground control points (GCPs) as fixed reference targets at different heights. The results show that PH estimations using PlatFW were consistent with those obtained from PlatMR, showing some slight differences due to image processing settings. The GCPs heights derived from CSM showed a high correlation and low error compared to their actual heights (R2 ≥ 0.90, RMSE ≤ 4 cm). The coefficient of determination (R2) between PHground and PHaerial at different GS ranged from 0.35 to 0.88, and the root mean square error (RMSE) from 0.39 to 4.02 cm for both platforms. In general, similar and higher heritability was obtained using PHaerial across different GS and years and ranged according to the variability, and environmental error of the PHground observed (0.06–0.97). Finally, we also observed high Spearman rank correlations (0.47–0.91) and R2 (0.63–0.95) of PHaerial adjusted and predicted values against PHground values. This study provides an example of the use of UAV-based high-resolution RGB imagery to obtain time-series estimates of PH, scalable to tens-of-thousands of plots, and thus suitable to be applied in plant wheat breeding trials.