The emergence of smart sensors coupled with the rapid advances in communication infrastructure is revolutionising almost every aspect of our daily lives. While the water sector has not been the fastest to adopt and deploy smart solutions, it is rapidly catching up. Better late than never. The early adopters of these technologies are undoubtedly going to lead the way; grabbing the market as they accumulate experience of deploying and managing such integrated systems.
The drivers to pursue and embrace this revolution are not new, rather it is coming together of technological advances in discrete sectors that has manifested as a key enabler. The developments of note are the emergence of cost effective IoT enabled smart sensors and meters (AMR and AMI devices), improved battery life and instrumentation that are intrinsically less power hungry, as well as communications networks like low power wide area networks LPWAN, 169 MHz radio frequency RF etc. The list goes on.
I have spoken about the drivers in a number of forums, the most fundamental being that water is the planet’s lifeline. It has often been neglected and undervalued, yet life as we know it would not exist without it. The earth is a closed ecosystem and has a finite resource of water, and all generations to come, flora and fauna included have only this resource, which nature has been recycling for millennia. With burgeoning human population, the lightening pace of industrialization across the globe, coupled with climate change, the stress on freshwater water availability has never been so high and continues unabated. Having said that, there is light at the end of the tunnel in the form of smart solutions for the water industry.
With water scarcity issues mounting by the minute and pressure from regulators, water utilities around the world are beginning to turn to smart solutions and artificial intelligence platforms to help them overcome these challenges. The four key areas for the deployment of smart technologies are:
- Smart water metering
- Smart water leakage detection
- Smart water quality
- Smart distribution networks
The first two items: smart metering and leak detection, aim to highlight awareness and access to live monitoring of water consumption and wastage. Water loss due to leakage (non-revenue water) can be as high as 45% in some countries, which establishes the scale of the problem but also the opportunity. The awareness element itself will initiate a step change in our attitude and habits when it comes to water consumption and conservation as users. The list of benefits of smart infrastructure goes on and I have attempted to summarize just a few below:
- At the tap of a smart app, data from smart meters can be used to understand water usage patterns and detect leaks at the consumer end, thus detecting leaks before they cause major flooding and structural damage. The latter in turn would help bring down insurance costs and claims.
- Provide accurate billing and transparency by overcoming human error and any potential legal challenges.
- It could act as an enabler to introduce bespoke water charges depending on the usage in peak vs off peak hours. This would also help flatten the demand curve on the network, enhancing network resilience while providing consumers more cost-effective billing options.
- Reducing or eliminating the need for vans / transport for manual meter readers. Reduced labour costs and HSE incidents.
- Smart sensors in the water distribution networks could help detect leakages in the network, helping the utilities overcome water scarcity issues and proactively address minor leaks before they become a major incident with extensive repair bills.
- Fixed speed pumps are one the highest energy consumption elements of water networks. Using the data to manage smart pumping stations, with live and variable control on pumps, reacting to network demand would significantly reduce energy costs, increase asset lifetime and reduce impact on the environment.
- Use of AI platforms and data analytics to lead proactive, preventative maintenance of all water infrastructure assets.
- Real time water quality monitoring, to continuously assess water health and build consumer confidence.
The deployment landscape in developed nations is however somewhat different to that in the developing world. In case of the latter, we are seeing rapid population growth and urbanization with both the emergence of new cities and the expansion of existing ones. The UN predicts that almost 70% of the world population will inhabit cities by 2050. This rapid urbanization is coupled with the development of new infrastructure and the opportunity to install smart water technologies, creating a new benchmark.
The opportunity in developed nations represents a slightly different challenge which comes from existing infrastructure showing signs of aging and will require technologies that can help proactively maintain or upgrade the same. While this sets the requirement for the industry, the landscape for the delivery of end-to-end smart solutions is foggy at best.
Providing complete end to end solutions will require the forging of robust collaborations and partnerships across hardware, software, project management, delivery and service partners; bringing together expertise and knowhow developed in discrete elements of this offering.
The opportunity is certainly now, with a number of estimates suggesting that the smart water market is expected to reach $30 billion pa. over the next 5 years.
At the end of the day, it is all about getting clever and safer with water usage and its management, to preserve and value this precious gift of nature, ensuring availability of hygienic water for all.