Publication Details

Hamylton, S., Morris, R. H., Cabral Carvalho, R., Roder, N., Barlow, P., Mills, K. & Wang, L. (2020). Evaluating techniques for mapping island vegetation from unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) images: Pixel classification, visual interpretation and machine learning approaches. International Journal of Applied Earth Observation and Geoinformation, 89 102085-1-102085-14.


We evaluate three approaches to mapping vegetation using images collected by an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to monitor rehabilitation activities in the Five Islands Nature Reserve, Wollongong (Australia). Between April 2017 and July 2018, four aerial surveys of Big Island were undertaken to map changes to island vegetation following helicopter herbicide sprays to eradicate weeds, including the creeper Coastal Morning Glory (Ipomoea cairica) and Kikuyu Grass (Cenchrus clandestinus). The spraying was followed by a large scale planting campaign to introduce native plants, such as tussocks of Spiny-headed Mat-rush (Lomandra longifolia). Three approaches to mapping vegetation were evaluated, including: (i) a pixel-based image classification algorithm applied to the composite spectral wavebands of the images collected, (ii) manual digitisation of vegetation directly from images based on visual interpretation, and (iii) the application of a machine learning algorithm, LeNet, based on a deep learning convolutional neural network (CNN) for detecting planted Lomandra tussocks. The uncertainty of each approach was assessed via comparison against an independently collected field dataset. Each of the vegetation mapping approaches had a comparable accuracy; for a selected weed management and planting area, the overall accuracies were 82 %, 91 % and 85 % respectively for the pixel based image classification, the visual interpretation / digitisation and the CNN machine learning algorithm. At the scale of the whole island, statistically significant differences in the performance of the three approaches to mapping Lomandra plants were detected via ANOVA. The manual digitisation took a longer time to perform than others. The three approaches resulted in markedly different vegetation maps characterised by different digital data formats, which offered fundamentally different types of information on vegetation character. We draw attention to the need to consider how different digital map products will be used for vegetation management (e.g. monitoring the health individual species or a broader profile of the community). Where individual plants are to be monitored over time, a feature-based approach that represents plants as vector points is appropriate. The CNN approach emerged as a promising technique in this regard as it leveraged spatial information from the UAV images within the architecture of the learning framework by enforcing a local connectivity pattern between neurons of adjacent layers to incorporate the spatial relationships between features that comprised the shape of the Lomandra tussocks detected.



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