Forests fulfill an important role in natural ecosystems, e.g., they provide food, fiber, habitat, and biodiversity, all of which contribute to stable ecosystems. Assessing and modeling the structure and characteristics in forests can lead to a better understanding and management of these resources. Traditional methods for collecting forest traits, known as “forest inventory”, is achieved using rough proxies, such as stem diameter, tree height, and foliar coverage; such parameters are limited in their ability to capture fine-scale structural variation in forest environments. It is in this context that terrestrial laser scanning (TLS) has come to the fore as a tool for addressing the limitations of traditional forest structure evaluation methods. However, there is a need for improving TLS data processing methods. In this work, we developed algorithms to assess the structure of complex forest environments – defined by their stem density, intricate root and stem structures, uneven-aged nature, and variable understory - using data collected by a low-cost, portable TLS system, the Compact Biomass Lidar (CBL). The objectives of this work are listed as follow:

1. Assess the utility of terrestrial lidar scanning (TLS) to accurately map elevation changes (sediment accretion rates) in mangrove forest;

2. Evaluate forest structural attributes, e.g., stems and roots, in complex forest environments toward biophysical characterization of such forests; and

3. Assess canopy-level structural traits (leaf area index; leaf area density) in complex forest environments to estimate biomass in rapidly changing environments.

The low-cost system used in this research provides lower-resolution data, in terms of scan angular resolution and resulting point density, when compared to higher-cost commercial systems. As a result, the algorithms developed for evaluating the data collected by such systems should be robust to issues caused by low-resolution 3D point cloud data. The data used in various parts of this work were collected from three mangrove forests on the western Pacific island of Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia, as well as tropical forests in Hawai’i, USA. Mangrove forests underscore the economy of this region, where more than half of the annual household income is derived from these forests. However, these mangrove forests are endangered by sea level rise, which necessitates an evaluation of the resilience of mangrove forests to climate change in order to better protect and manage these ecosystems. This includes the preservation of positive sediment accretion rates, and stimulating the process of root growth, sedimentation, and peat development, all of which are influenced by the forest floor elevation, relative to sea level. Currently, accretion rates are measured using surface elevation tables (SETs), which are posts permanently placed in mangrove sediments. The forest floor is measured annually with respect to the height of the SETs to evaluate changes in elevation (Cahoon et al. 2002). In this work, we evaluated the ability of the CBL system for measuring such elevation changes, to address objective #1.

Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) were produced for plots, based on the point cloud resulted from co-registering eight scans, spaced 45 degree, per plot. DEMs are refined and produced using Cloth Simulation Filtering (CSF) and kriging interpolation. CSF was used because it minimizes the user input parameters, and kriging was chosen for this study due its consideration of the overall spatial arrangement of the points using semivariogram analysis, which results in a more robust model. The average consistency of the TLS-derived elevation change was 72%, with and RMSE value of 1.36 mm. However, what truly makes the TLS method more tenable, is the lower standard error (SE) values when compared to manual methods (10-70x lower).

In order to achieve our second objective, we assessed structural characteristics of the above-mentioned mangrove forest and also for tropical forests in Hawaii, collected with the same CBL scanner. The same eight scans per plot (20 plots) were co-registered using pairwise registration and the Iterative Closest Point (ICP). We then removed the higher canopy using a normal change rate assessment algorithm. We used a combination of geometric classification techniques, based on the angular orientation of the planes fitted to points (facets), and machine learning 3D segmentation algorithms to detect tree stems and above-ground roots. Mangrove forests are complex forest environments, containing above-ground root mass, which can create confusion for both ground detection and structural assessment algorithms. As a result, we needed to train a supporting classifier on the roots to detect which root lidar returns were classified as stems. The accuracy and precision values for this classifier were assessed via manual investigation of the classification results in all 20 plots. The accuracy and precision for stem classification were found to be 82% and 77%, respectively. The same values for root detection were 76% and 68%, respectively. We simulated the stems using alpha shapes in order to assess their volume in the final step. The consistency of the volume evaluation was found to be 85%. This was obtained by comparing the mean stem volume (m3/ha) from field data and the TLS data in each plot. The reported accuracy is the average value for all 20 plots. Additionally, we compared the diameter-at-breast-height (DBH), recorded in the field, with the TLS-derived DBH to obtain a direct measure of the precision of our stem models. DBH evaluation resulted in an accuracy of 74% and RMSE equaled 7.52 cm. This approach can be used for automatic stem detection and structural assessment in a complex forest environment, and could contribute to biomass assessment in these rapidly changing environments.

These stem and root structural assessment efforts were complemented by efforts to estimate canopy-level structural attributes of the tropical Hawai’i forest environment; we specifically estimated the leaf area index (LAI), by implementing a density-based approach. 242 scans were collected using the portable low-cost TLS (CBL), in a Hawaii Volcano National Park (HAVO) flux tower site. LAI was measured for all the plots in the site, using an AccuPAR LP-80 Instrument. The first step in this work involved detection of the higher canopy, using normal change rate assessment. After segmenting the higher canopy from the lidar point clouds, we needed to measure Leaf Area Density (LAD), using a voxel-based approach. We divided the canopy point cloud into five layers in the Z direction, after which each of these five layers were divided into voxels in the X direction. The sizes of these voxels were constrained based on interquartile analysis and the number of points in each voxel. We hypothesized that the power returned to the lidar system from woody materials, like branches, exceeds that from leaves, due to the liquid water absorption of the leaves and higher reflectivity for woody material at the 905 nm lidar wavelength. We evaluated leafy and woody materials using images from projected point clouds and determined the density of these regions to support our hypothesis. The density of points in a 3D grid size of 0.1 m, which was determined by investigating the size of the branches in the lower portion of the higher canopy, was calculated in each of the voxels. Note that “density” in this work is defined as the total number of points per grid cell, divided by the volume of that cell. Subsequently, we fitted a kernel density estimator to these values. The threshold was set based on half of the area under the curve in each of the distributions. The grid cells with a density below the threshold were labeled as leaves, while those cells with a density above the threshold were set as non-leaves. We then modeled the LAI using the point densities derived from TLS point clouds, achieving a R2 value of 0.88. We also estimated the LAI directly from lidar data by using the point densities and calculating leaf area density (LAD), which is defined as the total one-sided leaf area per unit volume. LAI can be obtained as the sum of the LAD values in all the voxels. The accuracy of LAI estimation was found to be 90%. Since the LAI values cannot be considered spatially independent throughout all the plots in this site, we performed a semivariogram analysis on the field-measured LAI data. This analysis showed that the LAI values can be assumed to be independent in plots that are at least 30 m apart. As a result, we divided the data into six subsets, where each of the plots were 30 meter spaced for each subset. LAI model R2 values for these subsets ranged between 0.84 - 0.96. The results bode well for using this method for automatic estimation of LAI values in complex forest environments, using a low-cost, low point density, rapid-scan TLS.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Forests and forestry--Remote sensing; Optical radar; Remote sensing--Data processing

Publication Date


Document Type


Student Type


Degree Name

Imaging Science (Ph.D.)

Department, Program, or Center

Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science (COS)


Jan van Aardt

Advisor/Committee Member

David Ross

Advisor/Committee Member

Charles Bachmann


RIT – Main Campus

Plan Codes