AI project on 14 Irish test sites aims to inform carbon reduction policy

Microsoft Ireland and Science Foundation Ireland funding €5m Terrain-AI initiative

One of the biggest research projects ever undertaken to evaluate the impact of climate disruption in Ireland is to use advanced monitoring technology including satellites and drones .

The €5 million Terrain-AI project is being led by 50 researchers based in Maynooth University and funded by Microsoft Ireland and Science Foundation Ireland. Its aim is to improve understanding of the impact of human activity on land use, and how it relates to climate change, "with the ultimate aim of reducing global carbon levels by sharing the insights and models developed with other countries".

The research will initially focus 14 test sites in Ireland, ranging from farmland and bogs to urban areas.

Vast amounts of data generated by sensing technologies, user-friendly internet of things (IoT) devices and the Microsoft Azure Cloud will be processed using artificial intelligence (AI) models to "inform more effective and sustainable management practices, leading to significant carbon reduction", said Prof Tim McCarthy of the National Centre for Geocomputation in Maynooth – who is leading the research with Dr Rowan Fealy of the Icarus Climate Research Centre.


Government departments and State agencies including Teagasc, the EPA and Met Éireann will be contributing to the research along with scientists at TCD, UCD, DCU and UL, while indigenous data companies will also play their part, said Prof McCarthy.

Data will be captured from satellites, airborne platforms and in-field instruments, notably to test soil. “To ensure a broad representation of land usage, and to improve understanding of interactions between the land and human activities that lead to carbon emissions, the sites will include all types of land from grasslands, croplands, forestry, wetlands, peatlands to urban areas, Prof McCarthy said.

Carbon proxies

They will be monitoring with great precision “proxies for carbon” in the air, on land surfaces; notably biomass in the form of trees, grass and hedgerows, and below the surface in soils.

Research to date has focused on individual land use types, or activities relating to a specific sector. “However, this project will integrate insights and data from multiple land types and multiple sectors into a modelling framework that will inform more effective policies to reduce carbon emissions.”

It will also help to inform future land use practices that will achieve reduced carbon outputs such as precision farming (growing crops informed by satellite data); carbon sequestration of grassland and new approaches to public transport, or even tree planting in urban areas.

Announcing the funding on Monday, Minister for Science Simon Harris said: "This ambitious innovative research has the potential to significantly improve our knowledge and through that assist us to reduce our carbon emissions."

SFI director general Prof Mark Ferguson said the research would create important knowledge that would assist Ireland to meet international obligations for carbon reduction.

Cathriona Hallahan, managing director of Microsoft Ireland, said her company wished to support sustainable development and low-carbon business practices through the use of cloud-enabled technologies.

“Building on our recent initiative with Teagasc and the delivery of Airband to help the farming community to stay connected, this project will explore how we can leverage technology to reduce carbon emissions across different land types,” she added.

Net-zero future

Prof Ray O’Neill, Maynooth University’s vice-president of research and development, said Terrain-AI demonstrated how academia and industry could come together to tackle the big global challenges. “Tackling climate change is about changing everyday work patterns, activities and behaviours. The Terrain-AI project will collect high-quality data, extract verifiable information and generate the facts to enable society make informed decisions about changing how we manage our climate and environment.”

James O’Connor, managing director of Microsoft International Operations, predicted it would deliver unique insights to help landowners and planners make better-informed decisions to reduce emissions. “By leveraging the latest in AI and IoT technologies, and by sharing the insights and framework with other countries, we can collectively find new solutions to reduce carbon emissions globally and effectively deliver a net-zero future together.”

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times