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Technically Speaking: Water and the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) has the potential to revolutionise the water industry, as more and more of its technology is connected to the web

The Internet of Things could be used to connect systems across the water cycleThe Internet of Things could be used to connect systems across the water cycle

by Laurie Reynolds, Managing Director, Aquamatix

The possibilities of a connected world are almost limitless. There are already more machines connected to the internet than people, and many more connected products will enter our lives over the next few years as embedded micro-electronics proliferate in everyday things. Personal fitness monitors, white goods, cars, turbo-generators and water quality sensors, to pick a few examples.

This phenomenon is called the Internet of Things (IoT) and the intelligent systems which will be created will change our lives in profound ways. This article sets out to explain what the IoT is, and illustrate some applications in the water industry.

The term ‘Internet of Things’ is not new; it is attributed to Kevin Ashton of Google in 1999, but has captured people’s imagination and supported lots of new conferences in 2014. It even replaced Big Data at the peak of ‘inflated expectations’ in Gartner’s 2014 Emerging Technologies Hype Cycle.

Other terms which are used synonymously with IoT are machine-to-machine (M2M) communications, Web of Things, Industry 4.0, Industrial Internet (of Things), smart systems, pervasive computing and intelligent systems. All terms which reflect the idea that intelligent software embedded in Things are able to communicate their state, condition and actions to other machines and humans, and will create value which has not been possible or economic hitherto.

There are many projections for the potential value generated by IoT. One of the more extreme, from US IT company Cisco, predicts a value of US$14.4 trillion for companies and industries globally over the next decade. This figure represents the potential economic and social benefit arising from new connected applications and new service-orientated business models.

IoT spans many vertical markets. For the purposes of this article, it is useful to think about four main sectors: consumer goods, industrial equipment and processes, vehicle telematics and smart infrastructure. Our future cities will be highly dependent on integrated systems delivering smart street-lighting, electricity grids, smart gas, water and transportation networks. Inevitably, there will be completely new applications, businesses and industry sectors created which haven’t even been included in the number above, and some of that new value will bring benefits to the water sector.

IoT is driven by a convergence of five technologies which, when combined and integrated, create new applications which were not previously practical or cost-effective. It can be thought of as a natural extension of SCADA, telemetry, industrial automation and enterprise decision support all rolled into one, but it offers so much more than SCADA and there are important differences and advantages which are discussed below.

The five key technologies are:

• Low-cost sensors, actuators and embedded edge devices
• Microelectronic sensors have proliferated in all measurement and sensing fields. Mass-market applications such as smartphones and machine condition monitoring require sophisticated, accurate multi-sensor systems and associated signal processing.
• Costs have been driven down dramatically. Applications, such as personal health monitors, solid waste bins and most water sensors have no electrical power available - they have to operate for long periods of time on a small battery.
• Devices in the field are becoming smarter, and will be based on off-the-shelf, low-cost hardware. They contain intelligence that is specific to the function that the Thing has to provide.

For example, a pump station controller will be equipped with diagnostics for monitoring the condition of the pumps, their hydraulic performance and energy efficiency, and will be able to call for a maintenance intervention when required (Aquamatix).

A pressure sensor with embedded software which can detect and analyse transients and flow data; clever signal processing algorithms which extract the information value from the sensor and send critical events to a dynamic hydraulic model or decision-support system (Infrasense Labs).

A wireless ultrasonic level transmitter with a ten-year battery, which will transmit sludge tank levels when there is a significant change in contents and report solids inventory to a ‘travelling salesman’ optimal route planner (Enevo). These are a few examples of devices available today, and the rate of innovation will accelerate.

Open, wireless communication networks

A multi-sensor application consisting of many sensors of a similar type, such as pressure or water quality, distributed across a wide geographic area - or a set of multi-parameter sensors in a personal health monitor or monitoring a water body - need to be interconnected with other machines which use the data. Communications networks, in most cases, will be wireless.

Data transfer protocols such as Bluetooth (low-power, short-range) WiFi & Zigbee (medium –range) and GSM (medium-power, wide-area coverage) are becoming pervasive and low-cost. Security is a concern but is designed into the protocols and with multi-layer authentication at the edge device.

Open standards are important to ensure multi-vendor interoperability – a term describing products from different manufacturers working together. Point-based protocols such as DNP3, which were popular in 1990s for telemetry, are being replaced by message-based protocols that transfer whole blocks of pre-processed data from the intelligent edge device.

Most open protocols will be based on IP (internet protocol), however some local networks, especially if ultra low power is a requirement, as it is in water, will not use IP because it is not energy-efficient. Various gateways will be necessary to channel data from legacy and IoT devices via a public or private internet to data processing facilities.

Cloud computing

Cloud computing has drastically reduced the cost of data processing and storage due to the low cost of ownership and the lack of a need for server infrastructure or the additional cost of a data centre. A new term ‘FOG computing’ (not fats oils & greases) describes a more local distributed cloud resource which brings the processing to the data rather than pushing the data to the cloud.

As the edge devices become smarter, the data that needs to be transmitted as messages will be less frequent and higher value. The current perception of “drowning in data” will change to become the right data in the right context at the right time – a pipedream perhaps but the potential is certainly there.

Big data analytics

Big data analytics and machine learning, a vast array of techniques for extracting meaning and understanding from data, data-mining, self-learning algorithms and model-based reasoning, are a few of the mechanisms used for building automated decision support systems (DSS). When coupled with advanced data visualisation, actionable insight can be gained from real-time data coupled with new and legacy mathematical models. Integration with GIS and asset management and other enterprise business applications, such as energy optimisation, will also be critical business capabilities.

Mobile computing

Smartphones and tablets deliver actionable insight to human users on the operational front-line. Mobile browsers and apps also provide a rich platform for user interaction and data collection, and become data processing Things in their own right.

So how will all this new technology impact on water management? Agriculture accounts for around 70% of the world’s fresh water resources; there are already many smart systems in service for precision irrigation and crop yield management, which significantly reduce water demand. Aquamatix, a specialist technology company which is developing IoT for the water industry, is designing a system for a 220 year old canal which will take a weather feed from a crowd-sourced web service and use the data to predict rainfall; this will allow optimisation of storage and rainfall capture, reducing the need for back-pumping and the risk of serious flooding.

Smart technology will allow the parts of the water cycle to be run in a more integrated way enabling better decisions to be made based on real-time data. Questions such as when should water be drawn from a groundwater source or a river based on aquifer levels, demand and weather patterns?

When is the best time to discharge treated effluent to a river based on its flow rates and quality? What is the sludge solids inventory in holding tanks and what the optimal collection route? What is the effect of pump operation in pressurised water networks?

What is the optimum storage level in a service reservoir? Can a pump station and its service reservoir be used for load balancing and energy storage in conjunction with a smart grid? Yes it can! It will also provide a great example of the integration of electricity and water networks which will deliver exciting prospects for cost and resource saving. A system that can predict local floods could help flood-prone communities prepare for and maybe even prevent catastrophic events, and many more.

One of the most exciting applications driven by IoT will be in field service, which will evolve from reactive to preventative maintenance, based on actual condition of the plant and equipment. A supplier of specialist packaged treatment plant will be able to gain a much better understanding of utilisation of their equipment and offer a lifetime optimisation service, matching capacity to load thereby increasing reliability and availability. The supplier will gain a much better understanding of how the plant is operating, has an on-going customer relationship and a new service revenue stream.

A particularly interesting aspect of IoT is a concept which Aquamatix refers to as ‘Connected Know-how’, which involves replacing the declining expertise available at treatment plants and networks with smart devices. The domain expert’s experience is used to classify and codify a set of operating models for a particular type of asset or process, for example, disinfection.

The knowledge is captured and structured using information modelling techniques to create datamodels, which are implemented in the smart edge device. When the process is operating under normal conditions, no intervention is necessary, the intelligent system is in control. However, as soon as the process deviates outside its defined envelope, the expert can be quickly connected to the process, wherever he or she happens to be in the world, to determine corrective action and intervention.

The IoT will deliver practical, real-time asset management, providing the ability to optimise use of abstraction licences, boreholes, pumps, reservoirs, pipe networks, sewers, treatment plant and discharge licences to ensure lowest cost and most effective service to customers. It will allow systems and plant to be run closer to their limits of capacity, condition and energy efficiency. Far too often, the smart water debate focusses on the customer meter, but in a world of IoT, this is only the tip of the iceberg. The real value will come from truly sweating the connected assets within a measured and dynamically managed risk profile.

About the author: Laurie Reynolds is the managing director of AquamatiX, a company specialising in the Internet of Things for the water industry. He is a chartered engineer with over 35 years of experience in control systems and automation in the water industy.

Topic: Data, IT & Communications
Tags: Communications , Data


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