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Machine Learning Based Soil Moisture Retrieval from Unmanned Aircraft System Multispectral Remote Sensing


We developed machine learning models to retrieve surface soil moisture (0-4 cm) from high resolution multispectral imagery, terrain attributes, and local climate covariates. Using a small unmanned aircraft system (UAS) equipped with a multispectral sensor we captured high resolution imagery in part to create a high-resolution digital elevation model (DEM) as well as quantify relative vegetation photosynthetic status. We tested four different machine learning algorithms. The boosted regression tree algorithm provided the best accuracy model with mean absolute error of 3.8 % volumetric water content. The most important variables for the prediction of soil moisture were precipitation, reflectance in the red wavelengths, potential evapotranspiration, and topographic position indices (TPI). Our results demonstrate that the dynamics of soil water status across heterogeneous terrain may be adequately described and predicted by UAS remote sensing data and machine learning. Our modeling approach and the variable importance and relationships we have assessed in this study should be useful for management and environmental modeling tasks where spatially explicit soil moisture information is important.

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