Smarter Water Systems Through the Intranet of Things

Traditionally built on decades-old infrastructure, water systems have been slow to adapt to new technologies that improve processes and efficiencies. However, the advent of Internet-enabled technologies such as cloud computing and Big Data have the ability to usher in a new era of connectivity to help modernize water systems - driving a transformation into Smart Water systems that can share information and drive efficiency to improve an entire city’s operation.

By Mark Miller

Traditionally built on decades-old infrastructure, water systems have been slow to adapt to new technologies that improve processes and efficiencies. However, the advent of Internet-enabled technologies such as cloud computing and Big Data have the ability to usher in a new era of connectivity to help modernize water systems - driving a transformation into Smart Water systems that can share information and drive efficiency to improve an entire city’s operation.

Internet of Things (IoT) technologies allow a connection and networking of systems at the device level to provide unprecedented opportunities to create and share data to improve operations and decision making, and yield better performance for water systems. Data sharing, in particular, is more critical to Smart Water systems than any other industrial process. And while it’s known within the water industry that data sharing is vital to the day-to-day operations, unique cyber security and safety challenges have made water managers hesitate in adopting this trend.

Closing the Loop on Security

With Internet-enabled devices connected to the networking, creating billions of new, and perhaps insecure endpoints, you can’t blame operators for being wary of implementing IoT into their water systems. While security may be challenging when managing connected devices creating an exponential amount of data, it’s not impossible. It is a common misconception that isolation is the safest strategy. In fact, it can lead to its own variety of potential security vulnerabilities.

For instance, your SCADA system isn’t connected to the Internet, so an operator could use unconventional ways to move the data from the SCADA machine, using a USB for example, which can put your data at risk. Additionally, isolation prevents cyber security measures designed to prevent breaches from occurring. Unlike IT systems that are connected to the Internet and regularly receive patches and updates to ensure they’re secure, isolated water systems don’t receive those critical updates that help to prevent cyber attacks.

Water operators need to understand the importance of security and overall safety of their systems. By implementing Internet-enabled, smart technologies within a closed-loop system, water operators can build a sound network between devices, sensors and the infrastructure to enhance security. Utilizing a private cloud to store data and Big Data technologies for analysis, this Intranet of Things facilitates the sharing of data within the water system network while preventing access by outside parties. This enables the water system to maintain device-to-device communication architectures to automate decision-making processes and improve system efficiency.

Within this closed-loop environment, utilities still need to have multiple levels of security. Multiple layers of safety are absolutely critical in helping to minimize the risk of attacks and make it more challenging to breach the most critical areas and elements of the plant. Additionally, utilities can look to incorporate the following into their cyber security plan to ensure their measures are well rounded and robust:

  • Maintain standards: Operators can follow cyber security standards IEC 62443 and ISA99 in the design of their plant operations to ensure they’re following the latest security protocols available. Designed specifically for the water and wastewater industry, The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Framework, and the American Water Works Association (AWWA) also offer cyber security resources and tools to provide operators with the information they need to protect their critical infrastructure.
  • Choose the right security solutions: Operators should ensure the products they leverage are cyber-security or Achilles certified.

Awareness, expertise, and a thorough cyber security plan can help water operators implement new technologies and open their systems to the Internet with confidence.

More Data, More Problems

The benefits of implementing IoT technologies through a closed-looped system are vast, but one of the biggest challenges for water/wastewater operators (aside from safety and security) will be figuring out how to harness the data produced by smart-connected devices, add context to that data, and turn it into actionable insights in real time. Transforming data into valuable information is no small feat. The variables and challenges are real and in some cases new to many water systems.

To fully embrace IoT, water operators should consider a few key recommendations for transforming their data into business value:

  • Leverage automation to simplify processes: Automation, enabled by IoT and Big Data, is providing faster and far more effective processes, delivering a higher value and faster time to market. Automation enables decisions currently made by an operator to be made by the machine itself, freeing the operator to focus on improving the efficiency of the system and addressing challenges like energy usage, security, safety and process tuning, among others. Utilizing smarter components, like the newest Internet-enabled VSDs, embeds intelligence into devices to make decision-making easier.

  • Remove IoT bottlenecks to create context: Managing the onslaught of data created at the device level can be a difficult task. Further compounding that challenge, there’s a bottleneck between the enterprise-level data and the data at the control level. To gain full visibility into the data available, it’s imperative that water operators remove the bottleneck to acquire a holistic picture of their available data. This allows them to analyze data, add context from the entire operation and extract its value.

  • Take advantage of digitalization: While the water industry is often slow to adopt new technologies, it’s essential in the era of IoT to embrace digital. The digitization and Big Data components of new software tools can help mitigate the complexity of the Internet of Things. Technologies such as monitoring software, cloud, and virtualization tools will help water operators use data to improve their systems.

Overcoming the Adoption Hurdle

Internet-enabled, smart technologies have been widely implemented in the industrial sector over the last 10 years but, traditionally, the water industry has been a late adopter of technology because of the potential impact to the health and safety of the public, which is accomplished through mitigation of risk. However, avoiding new technologies designed to improve efficiency can be a risk in and of itself. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to implement new technologies while simultaneously minimizing risks to the water systems.

Implementing a closed-loop system allows water operators to take full advantage of the connectivity and intelligence gained through IoT technologies, like smart components, within the safety and security of internal systems. We call this the Intranet of Things - and it is doable today.


About the Author: Mark L. Miller has over 20 years of experience in the water, energy, software and industrial space. He is currently the director of the Water Competency Center for Schneider Electric. The U.S. Water Competency team is comprised of over 100 people dedicated to the support of the water/wastewater market.

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