A hybrid training approach for leaf area index estimation via Cubist and random forests machine-learning

Rasmus Houborg*, Matthew F. McCabe

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

183 Scopus citations


With an increasing volume and dimensionality of Earth observation data, enhanced integration of machine-learning methodologies is needed to effectively analyze and utilize these information rich datasets. In machine-learning, a training dataset is required to establish explicit associations between a suite of explanatory ‘predictor’ variables and the target property. The specifics of this learning process can significantly influence model validity and portability, with a higher generalization level expected with an increasing number of observable conditions being reflected in the training dataset. Here we propose a hybrid training approach for leaf area index (LAI) estimation, which harnesses synergistic attributes of scattered in-situ measurements and systematically distributed physically based model inversion results to enhance the information content and spatial representativeness of the training data. To do this, a complimentary training dataset of independent LAI was derived from a regularized model inversion of RapidEye surface reflectances and subsequently used to guide the development of LAI regression models via Cubist and random forests (RF) decision tree methods. The application of the hybrid training approach to a broad set of Landsat 8 vegetation index (VI) predictor variables resulted in significantly improved LAI prediction accuracies and spatial consistencies, relative to results relying on in-situ measurements alone for model training. In comparing the prediction capacity and portability of the two machine-learning algorithms, a pair of relatively simple multi-variate regression models established by Cubist performed best, with an overall relative mean absolute deviation (rMAD) of ∼11%, determined based on a stringent scene-specific cross-validation approach. In comparison, the portability of RF regression models was less effective (i.e., an overall rMAD of ∼15%), which was attributed partly to model saturation at high LAI in association with inherent extrapolation and transferability limitations. Explanatory VIs formed from bands in the near-infrared (NIR) and shortwave infrared domains (e.g., NDWI) were associated with the highest predictive ability, whereas Cubist models relying entirely on VIs based on NIR and red band combinations (e.g., NDVI) were associated with comparatively high uncertainties (i.e., rMAD ∼ 21%). The most transferable and best performing models were based on combinations of several predictor variables, which included both NDWI- and NDVI-like variables. In this process, prior screening of input VIs based on an assessment of variable relevance served as an effective mechanism for optimizing prediction accuracies from both Cubist and RF. While this study demonstrated benefit in combining data mining operations with physically based constraints via a hybrid training approach, the concept of transferability and portability warrants further investigations in order to realize the full potential of emerging machine-learning techniques for regression purposes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)173-188
Number of pages16
JournalISPRS Journal of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing
StatePublished - Jan 2018

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 International Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing, Inc. (ISPRS)


  • Cubist
  • Hybrid
  • LAI
  • Machine-learning
  • Random forests

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Computers in Earth Sciences
  • Engineering (miscellaneous)
  • Atomic and Molecular Physics, and Optics
  • Computer Science Applications


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