Interest in the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to estimate the aboveground biomass (AGB) of vegetation in agricultural and non-agricultural settings is growing rapidly but there is no standardized methodology for planning, collecting and analyzing UAS data for this purpose. We synthesized 46 studies from the peer-reviewed literature to provide the first-ever review on the subject. Our analysis showed that spectral and structural data from UAS imagery can accurately estimate vegetation biomass in a variety of settings, especially when both data types are combined. Vegetation-height metrics are useful for trees, while metrics of variation in structure or volume are better for non-woody vegetation. Multispectral indices using NIR and red-edge wavelengths normally have strong relationships with AGB but RGB-based indices often outperform them in models. Including measures of image texture can improve model accuracy for vegetation with heterogeneous canopies. Vegetation growth structure and phenological stage strongly influence model accuracy and the selection of useful metrics and should be considered carefully. Additional factors related to the study environment, data collection and analytical approach also impact biomass estimation and need to be considered throughout the workflow. Our review shows that UASs provide a capable tool for fine-scale, spatially explicit estimations of vegetation AGB and are an ideal complement to existing ground- and satellite-based approaches. We recommend future studies aimed at emerging UAS technologies and at evaluating the effect of vegetation type and growth stages on AGB estimation.
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