Three-dimensional light detection and ranging (LiDAR) point clouds acquired from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) represent a relatively new type of remotely sensed data. Point cloud density of thousands of points per square meter with survey-grade accuracy makes the UAV laser scanning (ULS) a very suitable tool for detailed mapping of forest environment. We used RIEGL VUX-SYS to scan forest stands of Norway spruce and Scots pine, the two most important economic species of central European forests, and evaluated the suitability of point clouds for individual tree stem detection and stem diameter estimation in a fully automated workflow. We segmented tree stems based on point densities in voxels in subcanopy space and applied three methods of robust circle fitting to fit cross-sections along the stems: (1) Hough transform; (2) random sample consensus (RANSAC); and (3) robust least trimmed squares (RLTS). We detected correctly 99% and 100% of all trees in research plots for spruce and pine, respectively, and were able to estimate diameters for 99% of spruces and 98% of pines with mean bias error of −0.1 cm (−1%) and RMSE of 6.0 cm (19%), using the best performing method, RTLS. Hough transform was not able to fit perimeters in unfiltered and often incomplete point representations of cross-sections. In general, RLTS performed slightly better than RANSAC, having both higher stem detection success rate and lower error in diameter estimation. Better performance of RLTS was more pronounced in complicated situations, such as incomplete and noisy point structures, while for high-quality point representations, RANSAC provided slightly better results.
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