Monitoring is a crucial component of ecological recovery projects, yet it can be challenging to achieve at scale and during the formative stages of plant establishment. The monitoring of seeds and seedlings, which represent extremely vulnerable stages in the plant life cycle, is particularly challenging due to their diminutive size and lack of distinctive morphological characteristics. Counting and classifying seedlings to species level can be time-consuming and extremely difficult, and there is a need for technological approaches offering restoration practitioners with fine-resolution, rapid and scalable plant-based monitoring solutions. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) offer a novel approach to seed and seedling monitoring, as the combination of high-resolution sensors and low flight altitudes allow for the detection and monitoring of small objects, even in challenging terrain and in remote areas. This study utilized low-altitude UAV imagery and an automated object-based image analysis software to detect and count target seeds and seedlings from a matrix of non-target grasses across a variety of substrates reflective of local restoration substrates. Automated classification of target seeds and target seedlings was achieved at accuracies exceeding 90% and 80%, respectively, although the classification accuracy decreased with increasing flight altitude (i.e., decreasing image resolution) and increasing background surface complexity (increasing percentage cover of non-target grasses and substrate surface texture). Results represent the first empirical evidence that small objects such as seeds and seedlings can be classified from complex ecological backgrounds using automated processes from UAV-imagery with high levels of accuracy. We suggest that this novel application of UAV use in ecological monitoring offers restoration practitioners an excellent tool for rapid, reliable and non-destructive early restoration trajectory assessment.
This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License
which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited