Alastair MacLeod, of Ground Control, details how Massive IoT is – and will – continue to transform the water sector.
The Internet of Things (IoT) describes connecting any device to other connected devices and the internet, or other communications networks. This allows all devices to collect and share data about their environment and how they are used. In short, IoT makes things smart.
Massive IoT then, is simply IoT on a massive scale; multitude of sensors, connectivity and data processing to cut costs and wastage, and improve operational efficiency.
Given its obvious applications to the water industry – including smart metering and remote equipment monitoring – it’s unsurprising that sensors in the water and wastewater treatment industries are forecast to grow to $2 billion by 2030.
Massive IoT sensors allow for remote monitoring, maintenance, and assessment of data across a wide range of applications, including distribution pipelines, storage tanks, treatment plants and much more. Using cloud and edge computing, big data, and AI (Artificial Intelligence), Massive IoT makes vast amounts of data more accessible for businesses, not least those in the Water sector. But why is this so important?
Water is a finite, essential resource. In the UK alone, it’s estimated that by 2040 we’ll see between 50-80% less water in rivers during the summer months, and by 2050, the population will have risen from 67 million to 75 million. The Environment Agency has predicted England will run short of water within 25 years, with Sir James Bevan describing the country as facing the “jaws of death”.
Though total leakage across England and Wales has decreased over the last five years, Ofwat estimates that one-fifth of all running water through pipes is lost to leakage.
Suppliers must look to processes and infrastructure, across entire networks, to ensure these are as efficient as possible.
Factors driving Massive IoT
The water sector has already implemented sensors to monitor water quality, manage smart meters and optimise distribution. Traditionally infrastructure including pumps and reservoirs have been monitored using SCADA systems. However, the final segment of pipeline responsible for delivering water to a customer’s premises, has always remained somewhat unknown to suppliers. Water companies have relied heavily on feedback from customers; for example, reporting a leak or fault.
As Jat Brainch, at Inmarsat, puts it – “you can’t manage what you can’t measure, and automation and digitalisation of the data capture process to collect granular, real-time results, is becoming increasingly essential.”
To get a better handle on water management, companies need data, delivered consistently and reliably to inform decisions.
As water becomes increasingly scarce, it becomes more expensive and there is pressure to maintain affordability, not just for people but industry.
Ultimately sustainability boils down to improving water optimisation and wastewater treatment so water can safely be recycled.
Massive IoT benefits
1. Smart water management is planning, developing, distributing and managing the use of water resources using IoT technologies including sensors, geospatial mapping and big data analytics.
Real-time monitoring of water and wastewater networks, provides companies with a transparent view of their pipelines and operations. This overlaid with predictive analytics enables companies to better conserve water, preventing unnecessary use and identifying leaks faster, for example.
2. Water quality and safety monitoring
Despite laws that require water companies to treat and dispose of wastewater, raw sewage and contaminants from factories are still legally and illegally dumped in waterways in much higher concentrations than are safe for human and animal health. Research shows that, in 2020, water companies discharged raw sewage into English and Welsh rivers 400,000 times.
Using real-time monitoring systems, sensors can provide data on various parameters such as pH level, dissolved oxygen level, turbidity and more. This data can then be used to identify sources of contamination, much faster, and prevent further spread.
3. Environmental monitoring and reporting. Blocked, overflowing systems can cause flooding, erosion, turbidity, storm and sanitary sewer system overflow, and infrastructure damage. While most businesses have some form of environmental monitoring system in place, there are many challenges associated with measuring and reporting on water usage. For example, remote locations can be difficult to access and monitor; pipes can become blocked or damaged; and heavy rainfall can cause flooding and damage equipment.
Combining data sent via sensors within Powered Telemetry Modules (PTM), companies can monitor and forecast these events. Utilising a mixture of time lapse cameras, water level gauges, rain gauges, and weather gauges, companies can predict where issues may occur and which areas are most at risk, and implement proactive, preventative measures.
4. Improve customer engagement. For smart meter users, data on water consumption is collected, sent, and evaluated in real-time by the Water company. But where smart metering really adds value, is for those using Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) technology. AMI infrastructure facilitates two-way communications meaning Water companies can provide real-time alerts regarding network damage and leakages, and adjust pricing and supply based on real-time insights.
Providing customers with this data empowers them to make more conscious decisions about their water usage and educates them on how they can save water resources without sacrificing quality of life.
5. Equipment management and maintenance. Remote monitoring can also be used on assets and equipment to improve network resilience and reduce maintenance costs. Using analytics and real-time data, companies can identify areas that are deviating from normal patterns (e.g. unusual spikes in consumption) and remotely troubleshoot problems before they cause damage or disruption. For example, issues with pumps can be identified quickly and remotely, before larger more costly repairs or outages are caused.
Moreover, using predictive maintenance software, companies can identify if a valve, which hasn’t been used in some time, needs repair and automatically alert technicians so this can be addressed before it jams up or malfunctions.
Cognitive computing also facilitates risk assessment and insights generation, which is expected to increase new revenue generating opportunities for the global market.
The above isn’t a comprehensive list, but it does provide an overview of some of the benefits. But these opportunities aren’t without challenges.
IoT is not just about connecting devices — it’s about connecting people, data, and processes. And connecting people to data and processes means tackling cost, interoperability challenges and security concerns.
Water infrastructure is vast. Due to the volumes required, the cost of modernisation and installation of new hardware is substantial. So much so, that installation is often cited as the largest cost challenge when deploying IoT solutions at scale.
In addition, legacy systems and ageing infrastructures common to businesses within the Water and Wastewater sector, does mean that often adding devices is not quite as simple as just installing. Often some level of customisation will be required to ensure newly introduced devices work well within existing operations.
However, IoT sensors, specifically those which are battery powered, have become increasingly cost-effective and providers don’t need to light up all pipeline within a network to reap benefits. When working with smart meters for example, even relatively small numbers can be used to affect change. Any increase in data and operation visibility can help water companies make smarter decisions and reduce maintenance costs.
Though Water companies must and do ensure processes require the very minimum of customer data in each instance, with increased data and data transmission, keeping this information secure from the reach of hostile parties becomes more difficult.
In 2021, a cyberattack attempt was made to tamper with the levels of sodium hydroxide in Oldsmar, Florida’s water supply. Thankfully the plant operator observed what was going on and the attack was blocked in time, but the incident does serve as a reminder of national infrastructure vulnerabilities.
Addressing this challenge requires companies and organisations to build security through every layer of the stack and is essential to successful IoT deployment.
The ability to quickly adapt to surges, peaks, and troughs is dependent on reliable, consistent data. Ultimately your decisions can only be as fast and as smart as available data allows. As water company networks tend to span over large areas, pumps and treatment equipment it’s likely at least some of your network will fall outside terrestrial coverage. It’s estimated that just 15% of the Earth is supported by cellular, whereas Satellite networks like Iridium cover everywhere and anywhere – including both poles.
What’s more, a recent paper found 75% of decision makers struggled to deploy their IoT projects because of connectivity issues. So it’s important companies consider connectivity options early in IoT planning and opt for a connectivity strategy able to consistently support all assets within a network.
In addition its key companies in Water and Wastewater industries should ensure connectivity strategies include alternate connectivity options for backup and backhaul. If there is a problem with the terrestrial networks due to weather etc, your IoT application isn’t negatively affected by long delays or gaps in data. Because ultimately, without a connection, nothing is smart.
More information at “0 to 1 in sixty seconds” – Data’s journey in shaping digital transformation in Utilities.
Ground Control is a satellite focused, IoT and M2M connectivity and critical communications provider.