Airborne laser scanning (LiDAR) point clouds over large forested areas can be processed to segment individual trees and subsequently extract tree-level information. Existing segmentation procedures typically detect more than 90% of overstory trees, yet they barely detect 60% of understory trees because of the occlusion effect of higher canopy layers. Although understory trees provide limited financial value, they are an essential component of ecosystem functioning by offering habitat for numerous wildlife species and influencing stand development. Here we model the occlusion effect in terms of point density. We estimate the fractions of points representing different canopy layers (one overstory and multiple understory) and also pinpoint the required density for reasonable tree segmentation (where accuracy plateaus). We show that at a density of ~170 pt/m² understory trees can likely be segmented as accurately as overstory trees. Given the advancements of LiDAR sensor technology, point clouds will affordably reach this required density. Using modern computational approaches for big data, the denser point clouds can efficiently be processed to ultimately allow accurate remote quantification of forest resources. The methodology can also be adopted for other similar remote sensing or advanced imaging applications such as geological subsurface modelling or biomedical tissue analysis.

Document Type


Publication Date


Notes/Citation Information

Published in Scientific Reports, v. 7, article no.: 6770, p. 1-9.

© The Author(s) 2017

This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. Te images or other third party material in this article are included in the article’s Creative Commons license, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons license and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)


Funding Information

This work was supported by: (1) the Department of Forestry at the University of Kentucky and the McIntire-Stennis project KY009026 Accession 1001477, (ii) the Kentucky Science and Engineering Foundation under the grant KSEF-3405-RDE-018, and (iii) the University of Kentucky Centre for Computational Sciences. The authors would also like to thank Chase Clark for helping with creation of Figure 1 and specially Prof. Dr. Kenneth L. Calvert for providing funds for open access publication.