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Comment: Networks make the world go round

Real-time, 'smart' water networks have been discussed for a decade without fully taking shape, but the barriers to implementation are now falling away, writes Chris Jones of Northumbrian Water

by Chris Jones, R&D Manager, Northumbrian Water

People, families, communities, media, transport, communications, information, health, education, finance, commerce, industry and, of course, utilities – they are all about networks. Service providers need to understand how effective their networks are and what quality of service they are delivering. Historic performance information is useful in identifying long-term deterioration and risk of service failure and for designing remedies. However, water companies increasingly aspire to use network information to understand what is happening now, to deliver insights into likely service levels over the next few hours and to drive real-time interventions to deliver great service in the most efficient way.

Given that we have been talking about real-time data and ‘smart’ water networks for at least the last decade, why does sensing for networks still feel novel compared to the extent of monitoring across our processes and assets? There have been various barriers preventing the uptake of sensing for water networks, but recent developments are helping to overcome some of these:

Barrier no 1: the availability of instruments to deliver real-time information at an affordable cost of ownership. We have driven instrument manufacturers to replicate lab-quality measurement in the field and to deliver high volumes of data across energy-demanding communications platforms. A number of factors are set to help resolve these tensions: battery technology continues to reduce the size and cost of energy storage, while increasing capacity and communications technology offers alternatives such as low power radio networks. More significantly, we are realising that relative trends in service quality offer valuable insights and that maybe lab-quality measurement is not always required.

Barrier no 2: The capability of systems to store, manage and analyse vast quantities of data and to deliver actionable insights in real time. The advance in computing technology is clear for all to see: ‘cloud’ storage and processing able to securely handle vast quantities of data, internet of things enabling device to device communication, machine learning offering automatic recognition of patterns and anomalies, visualisation tools delivering information effectively to users, automated network control systems delivering cost and quality benefits.

Barrier no 3: The unclear business case for network scale monitoring. To some extent, progress in delivering affordable sensors and data processing solutions will close the cost-benefit gap. However, genuine barriers remain: we are dealing with extensive legacy infrastructure that is difficult to access, meaning that retrofitting sensors is not trivial. Physical intervention options are constrained by resource availability and practicalities; if real-time action is not possible then the value of real-time information reduces.

At Sensing in Water this year, organised by the Sensors in Water Interest Group (SWIG) on September 27-28th at Nottingham Belfry, we will discuss these issues and others in the session on sensors for networks and infrastructure. See www.swig.org.uk for further details.

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