Deep neural networks with transfer learning for forest variable estimation using sentinel-2 imagery in boreal forest

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Estimation of forest structural variables is essential to provide relevant insights for public and private stakeholders in forestry and environmental sectors. Airborne light detection and ranging (LiDAR) enables accurate forest inventory, but it is expensive for large area analyses. Continuously increasing volume of open Earth Observation (EO) imagery from high-resolution (<30 m) satellites together with modern machine learning algorithms provide new prospects for spaceborne large area forest inventory. In this study, we investigated the capability of Sentinel-2 (S2) image and metadata, topography data, and canopy height model (CHM), as well as their combinations, to predict growing stock volume with deep neural networks (DNN) in four forestry districts in Central Finland. We focused on investigating the relevance of different input features, the effect of DNN depth, the amount of training data, and the size of image data sampling window to model prediction performance. We also studied model transfer between different silvicultural districts in Finland, with the objective to minimize the amount of new field data needed. We used forest inventory data provided by the Finnish Forest Centre for model training and performance evaluation. Leaving out CHM features, the model using RGB and NIR bands, the imaging and sun angles, and topography features as additional predictive variables obtained the best plot level accuracy (RMSE% = 42.6%, |BI AS%| = 0.8%). We found 3 × 3 pixels to be the optimal size for the sampling window, and two to three hidden layer DNNs to produce the best results with relatively small improvement to single hidden layer networks. Including CHM features with S2 data and additional features led to reduced relative RMSE (RMSE% = 28.6–30.7%) but increased the absolute value of relative bias (|BI AS%| = 0.9–4.0%). Transfer learning was found to be beneficial mainly with training data sets containing less than 250 field plots. The performance differences of DNN and random forest models were marginal. Our results contribute to improved structural variable estimation performance in boreal forests with the proposed image sampling and input feature concept.

Original languageEnglish
Article number2392
JournalRemote Sensing
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 18 Jun 2021
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


  • Boreal forest
  • Deep learning
  • Deep neural networks
  • Forest variables
  • Sentinel-2
  • Stem volume
  • Transfer learning


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