Classification of forest development stages from national low-density lidar datasets: a comparison of machine learning methods

R. Valbuena, M. Maltamo, P. Packalen


The area-based method has become a widespread approach in airborne laser scanning (ALS), being mainly employed for the estimation of continuous variables describing forest attributes: biomass, volume, density, etc. However, to date, classification methods based on machine learning, which are fairly common in other remote sensing fields, such as land use / land cover classification using multispectral sensors, have been largely overseen in forestry applications of ALS. In this article, we wish to draw the attention on statistical methods predicting discrete responses, for supervised classification of ALS datasets. A wide spectrum of approaches are reviewed: discriminant analysis (DA) using various classifiers –maximum likelihood, minimum volume ellipsoid, naïve Bayes–, support vector machine (SVM), artificial neural networks (ANN), random forest (RF) and nearest neighbour (NN) methods. They are compared in the context of a classification of forest areas into development classes (DC) used in practical silvicultural management in Finland, using their low-density national ALS dataset. We observed that RF and NN had the most balanced error matrices, with cross-validated predictions which were mainly unbiased for all DCs. Although overall accuracies were higher for SVM and ANN, their results were very dissimilar across DCs, and they can therefore be only advantageous if certain DCs are targeted. DA methods underperformed in comparison to other alternatives, and were only advantageous for the detection of seedling stands. These results show that, besides the well demonstrated capacity of ALS for quantifying forest stocks, there is a great deal of potential for predicting categorical variables in general, and forest types in particular. In conclusion, we consider that the presented methodology shall also be adapted to the type of forest classes that can be relevant to Mediterranean ecosystems, opening a range of possibilities for future research, in which ALS may show great predictive potential.


airborne laser scanning; discriminant analysis; maximum likelihood; minimum volume ellipsoid; naïve Bayes; support vector machine; artificial neural networks; random forest; nearest neighbour.

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