The Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD) announced that it has completed a pilot phase of a world first project to monitor soil quality utilizing the latest satellite and drone remote sensing technology, as well as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML).

The project is in line with EAD’s strategic priorities of ensuring sustainable and integrated approaches to protecting land and soil, assessing the impact of human activities and providing the basis for future management plans, protection policies and soil-related regulations. Mapping the contamination of soil in the Abu Dhabi Emirate aims to highlight which areas need to undergo remediation, recovery or protection measures to support a more sustainable environment.

The soil monitoring programme, which was launched in 2018, is designed to asses the level of contaminants. In 2020, EAD started a pioneer project to augment the current program and enhance its performance using cutting edge technology. Two locations in Musaffah in Abu Dhabi were selected for the pilot phase of this project. The project aims at measuring the level of heavy metals by remote sensing using satellites, drones and handheld spectrometers. This data was validated by physically gathered field soil samples.

Remote sensing will allow EAD to detect and monitor the physical and chemical characteristics of an area from a distance. The use of remote sensing as well as AI-powered data processing facilitated a greater understanding of soil health. As satellite imagery is known to produce objective, repeatable and transparent evidence, EAD will be able to protect and monitor the environment more efficiently.

EAD has also incorporated the use of AI models in its data analytics process, to help find relations and patterns, and identify and forecast soil quality scenarios. AI and ML analytical methods were employed to automate the correlation of remotely sensed data with field data, which offers improved efficiencies when working with such a large data set.

Her Excellency, Dr. Shaikha Salem Al Dhaheri, Secretary General of EAD, said: “To align with our new corporate strategy that outlines the need to monitor and preserve soil quality in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, we have conceived a comprehensive soil monitoring project. This endeavour will facilitate the accumulation of relevant, scientific data using the latest technology so that we can develop policies to maintain the health of our soil. Normally, AI and ML are used in controlled environments within research laboratories, and we have pioneered the use of this technology to process outdoor environments for the very first time. We follow an extremely rigorous process to ensure the accuracy of data by combining remote sensing with data collected in the field. Furthermore, through AI we are able to use very concise algorithms to produce meticulous and valid data that will help us to fully comprehend the bigger picture so we can maintain the health of Abu Dhabi’s soil for future generations.”

She added: “The data that will be gathered through satellites and drones cannot be seen with the naked eye, and we will be able to cover large areas in a very short period of time, speeding up the process of assembling data. This also results in effecting rapid remedies to protect the health of our soil and to mitigate any challenges that might arise, making for a safer Abu Dhabi. We need to protect soil biodiversity and sustainably manage this resource for a better tomorrow, making use of the latest technology to enhance our soil conservation efforts in a sustainable manner.”

Eng. Shaikha Al Hosani, Executive Director of the Environment Quality Sector at EAD, said: "The UAE strives to maintain the lead in deploying state-of-the-art technology across all fields and our role as EAD is to fulfill this vision and to develop our operations to adapt to new evolving technologies. This project also aligns with the UAE strategy for artificial intelligence, using an integrated, smart digital system that can overcome challenges and provide quick efficient solutions".

She added: “We are proud to be setting the benchmark in the use of pioneering methodologies that combine remote sensing, artificial intelligence, drones, and in situ surveying to improve the accuracy and efficiency of soil monitoring and management.”

EAD's aim to monitor and mitigate soil degradation is part of wider global efforts to combat desertification and achieve Land Degradation Neutrality, set by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). The UAE has been a member of the UNCCD since 1998.

The soil monitoring project involves three phases: the pilot phase having taken place in two locations in Musaffah, the second phase will map Musaffah Industrial Area and the third and final phase will cover the entire industrial area in the emirate of Abu Dhabi.

This innovative programme is expected to progress from pilot phase to full deployment by the end of 2022. The approach has been designed with repeatability in mind, meaning that these methods will be used to create a monitoring programme that provides continuous oversight and an ability to quickly detect change in the soil quality of Abu Dhabi, and to revolutionise existing approaches while increasing the knowledge base.