Considerations for achieving cross-platform point cloud data fusion across different dryland ecosystem structural states

Tyson L. Swetnam, Jeffrey K. Gillan, Temuulen T. Sankey, Mitchel P. McClaran, Mary H. Nichols, Philip Heilman, Jason McVay

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


Remotely sensing recent growth, herbivory, or disturbance of herbaceous and woody vegetation in dryland ecosystems requires high spatial resolution and multi-temporal depth. Three dimensional (3D) remote sensing technologies like lidar, and techniques like structure from motion (SfM) photogrammetry, each have strengths and weaknesses at detecting vegetation volume and extent, given the instrument’s ground sample distance and ease of acquisition. Yet, a combination of platforms and techniques might provide solutions that overcome the weakness of a single platform. To explore the potential for combining platforms, we compared detection bias amongst two 3D remote sensing techniques (lidar and SfM) using three different platforms [ground-based, small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS), and manned aircraft]. We found aerial lidar to be more accurate for characterizing the bare earth (ground) in dense herbaceous vegetation than either terrestrial lidar or aerial SfM photogrammetry. Conversely, the manned aerial lidar did not detect grass and fine woody vegetation while the terrestrial lidar and high resolution near-distance (ground and sUAS) SfM photogrammetry detected these and were accurate. UAS SfM photogrammetry at lower spatial resolution under-estimated maximum heights in grass and shrubs. UAS and handheld SfM photogrammetry in near-distance high resolution collections had similar accuracy to terrestrial lidar for vegetation, but difficulty at measuring bare earth elevation beneath dense herbaceous cover. Combining point cloud data and derivatives (i.e., meshes and rasters) from two or more platforms allowed for more accurate measurement of herbaceous and woody vegetation (height and canopy cover) than any single technique alone. Availability and costs of manned aircraft lidar collection preclude high frequency repeatability but this is less limiting for terrestrial lidar, sUAS and handheld SfM. The post-processing of SfM photogrammetry data became the limiting factor at larger spatial scale and temporal repetition. Despite the utility of sUAS and handheld SfM for monitoring vegetation phenology and structure, their spatial extents are small relative to manned aircraft.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number2144
JournalFrontiers in Plant Science
StatePublished - Jan 10 2018


  • Lidar
  • SUAS
  • Structure from motion
  • Terrestrial laser scanning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Plant Science


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