The leaf area index (LAI) is not only an important parameter for monitoring crop growth, but also an important input parameter for crop yield prediction models and hydrological and climatic models. Several studies have recently been conducted to estimate crop LAI using unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) multispectral and hyperspectral data. However, there are few studies on estimating the LAI of winter wheat using unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) RGB images. In this study, we estimated the LAI of winter wheat at the jointing stage on simple farmland in Xinjiang, China, using parameters derived from UAV RGB images. According to gray correlation analysis, UAV RGB-image parameters such as the Visible Atmospherically Resistant Index (VARI), the Red Green Blue Vegetation Index (RGBVI), the Digital Number (DN) of Blue Channel (B) and the Green Leaf Algorithm (GLA) were selected to develop models for estimating the LAI of winter wheat. The results showed that it is feasible to use UAV RGB images for inverting and mapping the LAI of winter wheat at the jointing stage on the field scale, and the partial least squares regression (PLSR) model based on the VARI, RGBVI, B and GLA had the best prediction accuracy (R2
= 0.776, root mean square error (RMSE) = 0.468, residual prediction deviation (RPD) = 1.838) among all the regression models. To conclude, UAV RGB images not only have great potential in estimating the LAI of winter wheat, but also can provide more reliable and accurate data for precision agriculture management.
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