Enhancing plant breeding to ensure global food security requires new technologies. For wheat phenotyping, only limited seeds and resources are available in early selection cycles. This forces breeders to use small plots with single or multiple row plots in order to include the maximum number of genotypes/lines for their assessment. High-throughput phenotyping through remote sensing may meet the requirements for the phenotyping of thousands of genotypes grown in small plots in early selection cycles. Therefore, the aim of this study was to compare the performance of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for assessing the grain yield of wheat genotypes in different row numbers per plot in the early selection cycles with ground-based spectral sensing. A field experiment consisting of 32 wheat genotypes with four plot designs (1, 2, 3, and 12 rows per plot) was conducted. Near infrared (NIR)-based spectral indices showed significant correlations (p < 0.01) with the grain yield at flowering to grain filling, regardless of row numbers, indicating the potential of spectral indices as indirect selection traits for the wheat grain yield. Compared with terrestrial sensing, aerial-based sensing from UAV showed consistently higher levels of association with the grain yield, indicating that an increased precision may be obtained and is expected to increase the efficiency of high-throughput phenotyping in large-scale plant breeding programs. Our results suggest that high-throughput sensing from UAV may become a convenient and efficient tool for breeders to promote a more efficient selection of improved genotypes in early selection cycles. Such new information may support the calibration of genomic information by providing additional information on other complex traits, which can be ascertained by spectral sensing.
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