Integrating a UAV-Derived DEM in Object-Based Image Analysis Increases Habitat Classification Accuracy on Coral Reefs

Brian O. Nieuwenhuis*, Fabio Marchese, Marco Casartelli, Andrea Sabino, Sancia E.T. van der Meij, Francesca Benzoni

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Very shallow coral reefs (<5 m deep) are naturally exposed to strong sea surface temperature variations, UV radiation and other stressors exacerbated by climate change, raising great concern over their future. As such, accurate and ecologically informative coral reef maps are fundamental for their management and conservation. Since traditional mapping and monitoring methods fall short in very shallow habitats, shallow reefs are increasingly mapped with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). UAV imagery is commonly processed with Structure-from-Motion (SfM) to create orthomosaics and Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) spanning several hundred metres. Techniques to convert these SfM products into ecologically relevant habitat maps are still relatively underdeveloped. Here, we demonstrate that incorporating geomorphometric variables (derived from the DEM) in addition to spectral information (derived from the orthomosaic) can greatly enhance the accuracy of automatic habitat classification. Therefore, we mapped three very shallow reef areas off KAUST on the Saudi Arabian Red Sea coast with an RTK-ready UAV. Imagery was processed with SfM and classified through object-based image analysis (OBIA). Within our OBIA workflow, we observed overall accuracy increases of up to 11% when training a Random Forest classifier on both spectral and geomorphometric variables as opposed to traditional methods that only use spectral information. Our work highlights the potential of incorporating a UAV’s DEM in OBIA for benthic habitat mapping, a promising but still scarcely exploited asset.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number5017
JournalRemote Sensing
Issue number19
StatePublished - Oct 2022


  • coral reefs
  • digital elevation model
  • drone
  • habitat mapping
  • OBIA
  • random forest algorithm
  • red sea
  • SfM
  • structure-from-motion
  • unmanned aerial vehicle

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


Dive into the research topics of 'Integrating a UAV-Derived DEM in Object-Based Image Analysis Increases Habitat Classification Accuracy on Coral Reefs'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this