Big data, internet of things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are rapidly making their way into the water industry. A plethora of organizations in the water sector are pushing the envelope and taking us into the digital water future. Coupled with the right business models, these technologies are bringing new capabilities for managing water systems that will have an unprecedented impact in reducing costs, optimizing capital investments, and increasing revenue for water utilities.
Here’s how to look at it: meters and sensors generate data that gives us a granular and real-time view into assets within a water system. Think of Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) companies, such as Neptune or Aclara, and IoT companies like Echologics that are deploying the latest generation of meters and sensors to unlock real-time data in our water infrastructure. All this data is then stored in data systems so software applications can turn it into useful information that can be actioned on. For example, cloud-based software platform companies like FATHOM or Optimatics are using this data to re-imagine how water utilities do billing and capital planning.
AI algorithms are then automating actions and create predictions based on the vast amounts of data created. This is one of the most recent trends, but we’re seeing AI companies such as EMAGIN delivering predictive analytics to help utilities save on operational costs and reduce risks through real-time optimization of assets.
Each of these technologies serve a specific function, and together are changing the paradigm in how water utilities manage their water systems.
Here are a few of my reflections on what all of this means for our industry, and the future that these technologies will enable. Firstly, historically we have always operated as a reactive industry; reacting to infrastructure breaks, equipment breakdowns, or water quality issues. I believe that with all this data and AI capabilities, we can finally be more proactive, with the capability to predict these infrastructure issues before they happen. This also means that we will be able to address issues when they are less costly to solve. Take for example the identification of a potential water leak at its earliest stages. Repairing the pipe at the earliest stages of a leak is much less costly than the loss of millions of gallons of water and repair of larger pipe sections further down the road.
Secondly, water utility day-to-day operations can be transformed by data. Data collection that used to occur on a monthly or weekly basis for operations such as meter reading or water quality reporting can now be done in real-time and at significantly lower costs. Utility assets that used to be silo’ed can now be connected into a single smart grid so infrastructure can be managed and operated more holistically. This will bring step function increases in operational efficiency for water utilities.
In the past, the only interaction that the ratepayers have had with their water infrastructure is turning on their tap and receiving their water bills. With the deluge of data coming from utility assets, water utilities now have the tools and capabilities to improve engagement with the public. DC Water is at the forefront of this trend and has recently launched an open data portal where they are sharing information on the utility’s operations and projects. This gives the ratepayers more visibility into the current state of the water systems and the upcoming water infrastructure upgrades. A more engaged ratepayers base will be critical to funding and supporting the necessary capital programs.
There is a long-held perception that things don’t change in the water industry but this is simply not the case. I believe the adoption of these digital technologies is happening at an accelerated rate, and will change the paradigm for the water industry in the near future—and this is an exciting future to be a part of.