Smart Water Networks

Mission-critical networks based on Internet protocol (IP) and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies are beginning to drive the digital transformation of a whole range of industries by helping to streamline operations, increase efficiency and optimize cost.

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Helping utilities keep the water flowing...or not

By David Christophe

Rapid population growth, coupled with equally rapid urbanization, is shifting demands on water supplies. In certain parts of the world, drought has become endemic and ensuring adequate supplies of potable water, as well as meeting the needs for agricultural and industrial use, is top of mind for city and regional planners. In other locales, too much water is a perennial problem, particularly the flooding that often accompanies rainy seasons and the extreme weather events that seem to have become more common with the emergence of climate change as a tangible influence on weather patterns.

Water also has a critical role to play in another, related societal need: power. Many cities and regions are heavily reliant on hydropower, for example, as an important renewable generation source to address consumer electricity demand and maintaining a stable supply requires careful management of water resources.

Increasingly, water management is a multi-dimensional challenge that can have regional and trans-national implications involving governments, power and water utilities, and quasi-­governmental organizations. One of the common threads that runs through these different scenarios is the need for real-time data, as well as a means to analyze that data to identify challenges and craft solutions. Just as cities and power utilities are turning to information and communications technology (ICT) networks to make their infrastructure and processes smarter, water utilities and other parties responsible for water management have the opportunity to do the same.

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A stable supply of renewable energy requires careful management of water resources.

Over the past two decades or so, modern communication networks have transformed society, smart phones, the Internet, and the vast array of services and applications they support have changed our lives in dramatic ways, often for the better. The potential of these same technologies to enhance water management processes is enormous. ICT platforms can bring tremendous intelligence to water distribution systems, hydropower generation, and both stormwater and wastewater infrastructure.

Of course, consumer-oriented networks, devices and services will not provide the answer to these challenges. Instead, mission-­critical networks based on Internet protocol (IP) and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies are beginning to drive the digital transformation of a whole range of industries by helping to streamline operations, increase efficiency and optimize cost.

In fact, a particular set of IP-based technologies — specifically Internet Protocol/Multi-protocol Label Switching (IP/MPLS) and packet microwave, have emerged as attractive options to replace aging, increasingly obsolete time-­division multiplexing (TDM)-based systems. Designed with utilities’ operational needs in mind, modern packet-based communications networks can meet the most stringent requirements for reliability, resiliency and security — necessities for networks on which entire regions depend.

Perhaps most importantly, these networks can support multiple services at once, including traditional operational applications such as Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) — which is certain to play a role in utility operations for years to come — as well as newer, bandwidth-hungry services like real-time video, which can be used for surveillance and monitoring of remote locations. These multi-service networks can deliver each according to their individual requirements in terms of throughput and other performance measures. In the past, such services were delivered using dedicated networks for each application, which is both costly and inefficient by modern standards. Better yet, utility-run networks of this type can be used to support operations for multiple departments — again, maximizing their IT investment.

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Water plays a critical role in power generation.

Another technology that is attracting the interest of water utilities is IoT. Many are exploring IoT as a way to gain visibility deeper into their distribution, generation and wastewater and stormwater systems — typically through sensors that gather information from infrastructure elements that have not been particularly ‘smart’ historically. An interesting example of this is the use of IoT to track water levels in flood-prone cities by deploying sensors in manholes, catch basins and other locations, and connecting them via low-power wireless access (LPWA) networks. These sensors can trigger alarms that can initiate a variety of actions from correcting growing problems, such as clogs developing in outflow pipes, to more radical measures, such as alerting civil officials to institute emergency protocols, including mandatory evacuations in extreme instances.

These same approaches can be applied in more mundane scenarios as well, such as helping to identify and eliminate leaks. Compromised water supply systems can result in enormous waste — up to 18 percent of the total supply on average in a typical U.S. city. The use of IoT combined with data analytics can accelerate the identification of leakage sources, however, and enable more rapid repairs of the most impactful leaks, leading to better overall maintenance than is possible using traditional inspection methods.

Communication networks, no matter how advanced, cannot compensate for a crumbling water supply system or overtaxed wastewater infrastructure. What they can do, however, is help ensure that the organizations managing these systems have as much real-time data as possible to base decisions on in order to optimize their use and safety. With a relatively modest ICT investment, water management systems can be much more than just a collection of dumb pipes. WW

About the Author: David Christophe is head of energy segment marketing at Nokia.

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