There is a growing need to increase global crop yields, whilst minimising use of resources such as land, fertilisers and water. Agricultural researchers use ground-based observations to identify, select and develop crops with favourable genotypes and phenotypes; however, the ability to collect rapid, high quality and high volume phenotypic data in open fields is restricting this. This study develops and assesses a method for deriving crop height and growth rate rapidly from multi-temporal, very high spatial resolution (1 cm/pixel), 3D digital surface models of crop field trials produced via Structure from Motion (SfM) photogrammetry using aerial imagery collected through repeated campaigns flying an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) with a mounted Red Green Blue (RGB) camera. We compare UAV SfM modelled crop heights to those derived from terrestrial laser scanner (TLS) and to the standard field measurement of crop height conducted using a 2 m rule. The most accurate UAV-derived surface model and the TLS both achieve a Root Mean Squared Error (RMSE) of 0.03 m compared to the existing manual 2 m rule method. The optimised UAV method was then applied to the growing season of a winter wheat field phenotyping experiment containing 25 different varieties grown in 27 m2
plots and subject to four different nitrogen fertiliser treatments. Accuracy assessments at different stages of crop growth produced consistently low RMSE values (0.07, 0.02 and 0.03 m for May, June and July, respectively), enabling crop growth rate to be derived from differencing of the multi-temporal surface models. We find growth rates range from −13 mm/day to 17 mm/day. Our results clearly display the impact of variable nitrogen fertiliser rates on crop growth. Digital surface models produced provide a novel spatial mapping of crop height variation both at the field scale and also within individual plots. This study proves UAV based SfM has the potential to become a new standard for high-throughput phenotyping of in-field crop heights.
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