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Leaf nitrogen content estimation using top-of-canopy airborne hyperspectral data
International Journal of Applied Earth Observation and Geoinformation  (IF5.933),  Pub Date : 2021-10-12, DOI: 10.1016/j.jag.2021.102584
Rahul Raj, Jeffrey P. Walker, Rohit Pingale, Balaji Naik Banoth, Adinarayana Jagarlapudi

Remote estimation of leaf nitrogen content is a critical requirement for precision farm management. Precise knowledge of nitrogen distribution in the crop enables farmers to decide the fertilisation amount required at specific locations on the farm. Importantly, nitrogen related molecules in plants are transported using water molecules, and water molecules surround the amide bonds (a plant protein created from nitrogen). Consequently, the nitrogen in various crop parts loses its activity in the absence of sufficient water molecules. The association of water molecules around plant proteins makes the optical remote estimation of plant nitrogen challenging as nitrogen and water molecules simultaneously affect the reflectance data. Moreover, the coarse spatial resolution of satellite data and sparse canopy coverage at early growth stages of the crop make it challenging to estimate leaf-level nitrogen contents. Accordingly, this research developed a leaf nitrogen content estimation model using drone-based top-of-canopy 400–1000 nm pure pixel hyperspectral images collected from a maize research farm treated with different water and nitrogen levels. Leaf level spectral signatures were also collected using a field spectroradiometer and used to identify indices more sensitive to nitrogen than water. The leaves were also destructively sampled for obtaining ground truth leaf water and nitrogen content. Red-edge region bands of electromagnetic spectra were identified to be sensitive to leaf nitrogen content. A synthetic data was created using maximum and minimum values of these indices and crop growth stage information, which was further used for training a gradient-boosting machine model to estimate leaf nitrogen content from drone-based hyperspectral images. The estimated leaf nitrogen content values from drone observations were critically analysed with respect to leaf water content values. For water-stressed areas, the model gave an R2 and RMSE of 0.63 and 2.74 mg/g, respectively. However, the model did not perform adequately for well irrigated areas, having an R2 and RMSE of 0.26 and 4.54 mg/g, respectively.