Integrating UAV hyperspectral data and radiative transfer model simulation to quantitatively estimate maize leaf and canopy nitrogen content

Jiating Li, Yufeng Ge, Laila A. Puntel, Derek M. Heeren, Geng Bai, Guillermo R. Balboa, John A. Gamon, Timothy J. Arkebauer, Yeyin Shi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Crop nitrogen (N) content reflects crop nutrient status and plays an important role in precision nutrient management. Accurate crop N content estimation from remote sensing has been well documented. However, the robustness (i.e., the ability of a model to perform consistently across various conditions) of these methods under varied soil conditions or different growth stages has rarely been considered. We proposed a hybrid method that integrates in-situ measurements and the data simulated by a mechanistic model to improve the estimation of maize N content. In-situ data included hyperspectral images collected by Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), and leaf and canopy N content (LNC and CNC). A mechanistic radiative transfer model (PROSAIL-PRO) was used to generate simulated data, i.e., canopy reflectance paired with target crop traits (i.e., LNC, CNC). We compared the performance from the hybrid method with a machine learning method (Gaussian Process Regression) and six different vegetation indices (VIs) on four in-situ datasets collected at three study sites from 2021 to 2022. Results show that the hybrid method consistently performed the best for LNC estimation across four testing datasets (RRMSE ranging from 10.08% to 10.84%). For CNC estimation, the hybrid method had the best estimation results on two out of the four testing datasets and performed comparably to the best method on the other two datasets (RRMSE ranging from 13.89% to 25.21%). Next, we assessed the estimation robustness of the hybrid method, the machine learning, and the best-VI by comparing the mean (µ) and standard deviation (σ) of RRMSE across diverse water and N treatments (condition #1) and different growth stages (condition #2). Among 16 total cases (two crop traits by four study sites by two conditions), the hybrid method had 11 cases of smallest µ and seven cases of smallest σ, outperforming the machine learning (0/16 for µ, 4/16 for σ) and the best-VI (5/16 for µ, 5/16 for σ). These results underscore the greater robustness of the hybrid method. This study highlights the potential of integrating in-situ measurements and simulated data to improve estimation accuracy and robustness for maize LNC and CNC. The promising performance of the hybrid method suggests its applicability to a broader range of crops and various crop traits.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number103817
JournalInternational Journal of Applied Earth Observation and Geoinformation
StatePublished - May 2024


  • Crop traits
  • Hyperspectral imager
  • Machine learning
  • Mechanistic model
  • UAS

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Computers in Earth Sciences
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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