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Low-Cost Tree Crown Dieback Estimation Using Deep Learning-Based Segmentation

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Allen, Matthew 
Moreno-Fernández, D 
Ruiz-Benito, P 
Grieve, SWD 
Lines, Emily 


The global increase in observed forest dieback, characterised by the death of tree foliage, heralds widespread decline in forest ecosystems. This degradation causes significant changes to ecosystem services and functions, including habitat provision and carbon sequestration, which can be difficult to detect using traditional monitoring techniques, highlighting the need for large-scale and high-frequency monitoring. Contemporary developments in the instruments and methods to gather and process data at large-scales mean this monitoring is now possible. In particular, the advancement of low-cost drone technology and deep learning on consumer-level hardware provide new opportunities. Here, we use an approach based on deep learning and vegetation indices to assess crown dieback from RGB aerial data without the need for expensive instrumentation such as LiDAR. We use an iterative approach to match crown footprints predicted by deep learning with field-based inventory data from a Mediterranean ecosystem exhibiting drought-induced dieback, and compare expert field-based crown dieback estimation with vegetation index-based estimates. We obtain high overall segmentation accuracy (mAP: 0.519) without the need for additional technical development of the underlying Mask R-CNN model, underscoring the potential of these approaches for non-expert use and proving their applicability to real-world conservation. We also find colour-coordinate based estimates of dieback correlate well with expert field-based estimation. Substituting ground truth for Mask R-CNN model predictions showed negligible impact on dieback estimates, indicating robustness. Our findings demonstrate the potential of automated data collection and processing, including the application of deep learning, to improve the coverage, speed and cost of forest dieback monitoring.



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Environmental Data Science

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EPSRC (2413201)
MRC (MR/T019832/1)
M. J. A. was supported by the UKRI Centre for Doctoral Training in Application of Artificial Intelligence to the study of Environmental Risks [EP/S022961/1]. E. R. L. and S. W. D. G. were funded by a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship awarded to E. R. L. [MR/T019832/1]. PRB was supported by the Community of Madrid Region under the framework of the multi-year Agreement with the University of Alcalá (Stimulus to Excellence for Permanent University Professors, EPUINV/ 2020/010) . PRB and ERL are supported by the Science and Innovation Ministry (subproject LARGE and REMOTE, N° PID2021-123675OB-C41 and PID2021-123675OB-C42).
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