Articles | Volume 13, issue 24
Research article
15 Dec 2016
Research article |  | 15 Dec 2016

Crop water stress maps for an entire growing season from visible and thermal UAV imagery

Helene Hoffmann, Rasmus Jensen, Anton Thomsen, Hector Nieto, Jesper Rasmussen, and Thomas Friborg

Abstract. This study investigates whether a water deficit index (WDI) based on imagery from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can provide accurate crop water stress maps at different growth stages of barley and in differing weather situations. Data from both the early and late growing season are included to investigate whether the WDI has the unique potential to be applicable both when the land surface is partly composed of bare soil and when crops on the land surface are senescing. The WDI differs from the more commonly applied crop water stress index (CWSI) in that it uses both a spectral vegetation index (VI), to determine the degree of surface greenness, and the composite land surface temperature (LST) (not solely canopy temperature).

Lightweight thermal and RGB (red–green–blue) cameras were mounted on a UAV on three occasions during the growing season 2014, and provided composite LST and color images, respectively. From the LST, maps of surface-air temperature differences were computed. From the color images, the normalized green–red difference index (NGRDI), constituting the indicator of surface greenness, was computed. Advantages of the WDI as an irrigation map, as compared with simpler maps of the surface-air temperature difference, are discussed, and the suitability of the NGRDI is assessed. Final WDI maps had a spatial resolution of 0.25 m.

It was found that the UAV-based WDI is in agreement with measured stress values from an eddy covariance system. Further, the WDI is especially valuable in the late growing season because at this stage the remote sensing data represent crop water availability to a greater extent than they do in the early growing season, and because the WDI accounts for areas of ripe crops that no longer have the same need for irrigation. WDI maps can potentially serve as water stress maps, showing the farmer where irrigation is needed to ensure healthy growing plants, during entire growing season.

Short summary
This study investigates whether the UAV (drone) based WDI can determine crop water stress from fields with open canopies (land surface consisting of both soil and canopy) and from fields where canopies are starting to senesce. This utility could solve issues that arise when applying the commonly used CWSI stress index. The WDI succeeded in providing accurate, high-resolution estimates of crop water stress at different growth stages of barley.
Final-revised paper