As every industry considers how digital transformation will benefit them, the water sector also faces the desire to adopt new technologies and practices, while balancing the challenges, resources and reality of organisational change.
The adoption of IoT in water solutions is growing quickly as the majority of Australian households and businesses utilising a water meter realise the benefits of smart water to improved their daily use.
Smart metering is conducted by an integrated electronic meter or a conventional mechanical meter with an electronic probe (or logger) attached to automatically collect meter data. Data is transmitted via the Telstra NB-IoT or similar networks, then collected, processed, visualised and analysed to improve operational efficiencies.
IoT also has a broader role to play in water collection, treatment, distribution, use, and wastewater covering the entire water network, and offers significant opportunities for agriculture and rural water use.
At Telstra Purple, we work closely with our customers in this industry to understand the current trends and challenges that influence them in achieving their goals. Recently, I attended the OzWater conference in Brisbane, Australia’s largest international water conference and trade exhibition run by the Australian Water Association (AWA).
Over three days, more than 200 sessions discussed every major topic impacting this sector including asset management, climate, project delivery, workforce planning, leadership, customers, innovation, and technology. With so much great content and insights shared, I have comprised a list of the top five IoT related themes I observed.
1. IoT is everywhere
The diversity of sensors and variety of uses - from water meter reading, wastewater overflows and monitoring of waterways and stormwater channels are only just a few examples of IoT in action.
Industrial control processors, instrumentation and Scada systems have been in use for decades and are still primarily used for monitoring and control, but IoT is increasing being added to the mix and is now everywhere you look.
Most water authorities are operating or trialling some form of IoT in their networks today. And while it might not be a replacement for Scada, IoT increases data acquisition, and in many cases can capture data which was previously unavailable. For example, water meter reads can go from capturing four times a year to every 30 minutes, providing a new insight into daily water use in households.
2. Data is proving its value
Water authorities are looking to capture and analyse new data about their water networks to reshape and influence water management decision making. They do this through real-time water meter readings, by tracking network outages and by creating digital twins of wastewater plants, made possible by data tracking.
The benefits of tracking data also extends to consumers, communities, and businesses. Case studies presented at OzWater demonstrated how providing real-time water usage insights via mobile apps or online, combined with education and suggestions on water saving has resulted in decreased water bills and improved water distribution across networks.
3. The market is suffering choice overload
As technology rapidly advances, so too do the products, devices, and solutions now available to the water market.
There were more than 200 exhibitors at OzWater showcasing everything from sensors, networks, platforms, data analytics, off the shelf products, managed services, and build-it-yourself solutions. This choice presents a very real technology issues for water authorises who predominantly have large, fixed asset infrastructure to replace with digital assets.
Typically, water meters have a life span of 10 to 15 years, so when considering technology that comprises of computer chips, wires, batteries, sim cards and data – it can become a complicated purchasing decision.
4. POC’s provide insight into what’s working (and what’s not)
Given the availability of a range of technology options and possible applications it is critical for infrastructure of this nature to be tried and tested in field.
Of the 130 technical presentations this year, a large percentage demonstrated how IoT, data and other technologies play a significant part in the future of water management. It was apparent that the majority of water authorities are planning, in the process of or have completed at least one proof of concept (POC) across their water network.
During my time at the event, I saw real world examples across all aspects of the water network providing applicable insights of success and failure.
5. Scale is being driven by smaller providers
While many water meters are currently analogue, early adopters have already proven that scale can work. Over the next two to five years we will see a network wide implementation of smart water meters, however scale and full network upgrades in any industry can be costly and daunting.
As we’ve seen in other industries, the smaller providers are succeeding in delivering upgrades faster and more easily due to their size and need to change, with several demonstrating their smart water networks during the OzWater event.
While these demonstrations might not include the most innovative technology or the most intelligent data platform, they demonstrated smart cost-effective solutions that integrated into existing systems, enabling them to focus on achieving their main objectives through interoperability and system integration.
In my 25 years of digital experience, I’ve learned that some of the best lessons come from the smaller providers. They have limited room for failure, restricted access to resources and funding, and they need to innovate to stay competitive in the shifting market.
Overall, my time at OzWater demonstrated the market has solutions, it has validated the business cases, and we are realising the benefits from scaled implementations.
The role technology and data play in improving the resilience of our water systems and networks is about to witness a dramatic step change with the adoption of IoT.