The volumetric water content (VWC) of soil is a critical parameter in agriculture, as VWC strongly influences crop yield, provides nutrients to plants, and maintains the microbes that are needed for the biological health of the soil. Measuring VWC is difficult, as it is spatially and tempo-rally heterogeneous, and most agricultural producers use point measurements that cannot fully capture this parameter. Electrical conductivity (EC) is another soil parameter that is useful in agricul-ture, since it can be used to indicate soil salinity, soil texture, and plant nutrient availability. Soil EC is also very heterogeneous; measuring EC using conventional soil sampling techniques is very time consuming and often fails to capture the variability in EC at a site. In contrast to the point-based methods used to measure VWC and EC, multispectral data acquired with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) can cover large areas with high resolution. In agriculture, multispectral data are often used to calculate vegetation indices (VIs). In this research UAV-acquired VIs and raw multispectral data were used to predict soil VWC and EC. High-resolution geophysical methods were used to acquire more than 41,000 measurements of VWC and 8,000 measurements of EC in 18 traverses across a field that contained 56 experimental plots. The plots varied by crop type (corn, soybeans, and al-falfa) and drainage (no drainage, moderate drainage, high drainage). Machine learning was per-formed using the random forest method to predict VWC and EC using VIs and multispectral data. Prediction accuracy was determined for several scenarios that assumed different levels of knowledge about crop type or drainage. Results showed that multispectral data improved prediction of VWC and EC, and the best predictions occurred when both the crop type and degree of drainage were known, but drainage was a more important input than crop type. Predictions were most accurate in drier soil, which may be due to the lower overall variability of VWC and EC under these conditions. An analysis of which multispectral data were most important showed that NDRE, VARI, and blue band data improved predictions the most. The final conclusions of this study are that inexpensive UAV-based multispectral data can be used to improve estimation of heterogenous soil properties, such as VWC and EC in active agricultural fields. In this study, the best estimates of these properties were obtained when the agriculture parameters in a field were fairly homogeneous (one crop type and the same type of drainage throughout the field), although improvements were observed even when these conditions were not met. The multispectral data that were most useful for prediction were those that penetrated deeper into the soil canopy or were sensitive to bare soil.


Geosciences and Geological and Petroleum Engineering

Keywords and Phrases

Crop type; Drainage tile; Electrical conductivity (EC); Machine learning; Multispectral; Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV); Vegetation indices (VIs); Volumetric water content (VWC)

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Article - Journal

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Final Version

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Publication Date

01 Feb 2022