How To Meet A Rising Tide Head-On
New trends in field computing, software and the Internet of Things are improving water utility operations
The real news lies in how utilities are using technology to capture these benefits, and how these technologies are changing.
In 2008, the Water Research Foundation (WRF) sponsored a research project to evaluate applications and trends in wireless technologies and field computing applications for water utilities. The study examined the use of field computing by a selected sample of water and wastewater utilities in the United States. The research showed utilities using field computing technologies realized significant improvement in seven areas:
- Improved data quality, transparency and control
- Enhanced visibility into field activities
- More effective management of asset lifecycles
- Reduced response time for unplanned activities
- Improvements in compliance and reporting
- Time savings in meter management
- Time savings due to optimized scheduling and more accurate reporting
These improvements directly translate into reduced operating costs, better customer service and improved planning. The benefits resulted from a blend of technologies in field computing, including hardware, communications and software.
Field computing is not a new concept for water utilities. “Hardware, software and communications technologies have progressed to the point where pervasive mobile integration is now feasible,” the 2008 report stated. “The essential ingredients for compelling, real-time field computing systems are now in place.”
A wide variety of water utilities services and activities take place in the field. These functions include services in asset construction and maintenance, mapping and data collection, meter reading, inspection and repair, customer service and more. While the activities require different skills and equipment, they share several common technological needs. Spread across a utility’s functional and geographic coverage, core technologies serve as the enabling platforms for managing and improving the organization’s quality and efficiency.
The technologies concentrate on the functions of collecting, protecting, moving and utilizing information with the goal of optimizing the utilization and performance of a utility’s human and physical resources. These core technologies include:
Field Solutions for Mobile Computing
These technologies provide hardware and software platforms to collect and deliver information and user guidance. They can range from small handheld devices to tablets and in-vehicle displays. Specialized software guides field technicians through work processes, provides records of activities, and conveys work orders and instructions.
Spatial Technologies for Positioning, Mapping and Geographic Information
The location of assets and personnel is essential information for utility management. GPS receivers, often embedded into field computing devices, provide basic data for the geographic aspects of operations. Other technologies gather and process information from aerial and terrestrial sensors to produce detailed maps and comprehensive Geographic Information Systems (GIS).
Communications Between Field and Office
An essential component for field computing, communication technologies support the flow of information and instructions, as well as automated operation of physical assets. Communications technologies include Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems, dedicated radio networks, and wireless Internet communications via cellular, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technologies.
Mobile Resource Management and Telematics
The productivity of large fleets and mobile workers is low-hanging fruit in the effort to manage costs and quality. Mobile Resource Management (MRM) has demonstrated its effectiveness in cutting operating costs by improving productivity, reducing fuel costs and carbon emissions, enhancing driver safety, and providing management visibility into field activities. Sometimes referred to as Field Service Management (FSM), MRM combines the technologies of mobile computing, positioning and communications to support dispatch, tracking, fleet management and performance monitoring.
Sensors for Monitoring and Control
Remote monitoring and control of processes and networks promise significant benefits in efficiency and quality. The 2008 report cited flow rates and operation status as the most commonly monitored parameters, followed by pipeline pressure and chlorine levels. The technologies also include Automated Meter Reading and Infrastructure (AMR and AMI), which are some of the most popular applications for water utilities. Improvements in communications with remote sensors — initially based on telephone and dedicated radio systems — have supported increased functionality and deployment.
These technologies have not stood still. In the seven years since the WRF report, we have seen two main aspects of improvement. First, technological maturation has changed — and significantly improved — the availability, accessibility and packaging of technologies. The result is reduced complexity, easier integration and less confusion in choosing and implementing modern solutions into a water utility. Second, innovation has accelerated and new technologies are emerging faster than ever to facilitate smart water networks and improvements in enterprise management.
There are four prominent trends in field technologies affecting water utilities: Increased deployment of information to field workers; consumerization of common tools; widespread adoption of cloud technology; and the advent of Internet-accessible smart sensors known as “The Internet of Things.” These trends aren’t the result of any one event or product. Rather, they reflect the continuing growth and integration in core technologies of field platforms, communications and software.
Deployment of Information to Field Workers
The value of information is not realized until it is delivered — in readily useable form — to the person who needs it. Data about field assets is often kept in office systems. But regardless of how accurate or timely it may be, data in the office is of little use to a crew in the field. For example, utility vehicles often carry “map books” that contain maps and information about assets and facilities. The work to keep map books up to date in large fleets is a difficult challenge. Paper-based methods for asset management, work orders and dispatch are also difficult, and do little to instill confidence in the accuracy of the information. It’s an environment ripe for field-accessible GIS and asset management.
Field technologies can deliver interactive maps, forms, maintenance records and other information directly to the point of work. By providing field crews with accurate information, utilities can boost productivity and morale. Electronic work orders can be crosschecked with vehicle inventories to ensure the correct tools and parts are onboard. Returns to the office for additional information can be eliminated, and field crews can immediately convey changes in field conditions to supervisors and dispatchers.
Most organizations acknowledge the power and value of field computing and enterprise management. But adoption in water utilities has lagged behind other industries, due in part to concerns over data integrity and security, as well as the availability and reliability of wireless Internet access across diverse geographic service areas. Advances in hardware and software, combined with expansion in telecommunications networks, have mitigated many concerns in moving to cloud systems. Solutions developers continue to introduce new techniques to provide stronger security and increased reliability.
The concept of reliability can be extended to supporting field operations in difficult conditions and remote locations. For example, many utilities-focused software solutions provide “offline modes” that enable field workers to operate even when communications are not available, which is common when responding to emergencies.
Consumerization of Common Tools
In spite of the benefits, many industries lagged in adopting field computing technologies. Significant resistance came from workers unfamiliar with the concepts and devices. The floodgates opened in June, 2007, when Apple sold its first iPhone. In the months and years to follow, consumers came to accept — and then demand — instant and easy access to information and entertainment. For commercial applications, it produced a sociological and technological sea of change as workers and organizations recognized the value of field technologies.
The acceptance of smartphones and tablets carried into water utilities and helped accelerate the acceptance of technologies by field workers, many of whom had resisted earlier efforts with field computing.
Smartphones illustrate how the maturation of mobile technologies has made it easier and more cost-effective for utilities to adopt field solutions. In many cases, consumer products have found their way into the utility processes for data collection and information sharing. Even when utilities use commercial platforms with rugged hardware and specialized applications software, the solutions draw on the success of their consumer-grade counterparts. Because technicians often have their own products similar to commercial mobile devices, they are more likely to accept the commercial devices. Learning curves become shorter, and field crews are more accepting of the new systems.
Adoption of the Cloud
Challenges can often arise in adopting field technologies. A common concern is the work needed to integrate the new tools into existing information infrastructure, systems and processes. By using cloud technologies, the effort to link field and office decreases rapidly. Utilities can rely on vendors and mature technologies instead of making the integration themselves.
Many utilities take advantage of hosted services to manage and distribute information. By doing so, they don’t need to invest in their own servers. When using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products deployed in the cloud, utilities can bypass the IT challenge to set up servers internally and deal with system setup, installation and maintenance of an on-premise environment. This approach frees up resources that can be better used elsewhere. For example, COTS solutions such as the Trimble eRespond Incident Management System can be operated on local hardware as an in-house private cloud or as a vendor cloud-based service.
When local integration or customization is needed, COTS products and their Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) provide important benefits. Many cloud systems include well established, highly configurable APIs, which make it possible to connect to enterprise systems. This can be done with less effort than in the past, when integration required custom projects to create interconnected systems. Today, many APIs have reached a level of maturity that removes much of the risk in integrating field and office processes. The easier integration enables the flow of critical information from back office systems to where it’s needed most — the field and jobsite.
In addition to enhancing internal data flow and processes, cloud-based systems can improve external relations. By leveraging existing GIS and visualization technologies, water utilities can provide stakeholders with increased transparency into their services and performance, as well as faster response to incidents and questions.
The Internet of Things
Sensor technologies and the Internet of Things are among the fastest growing areas of innovation. The technologies offer utilities the opportunity to proactively monitor, manage and control the treatment and supply of drinking water from source to customer.
Many plant facilities (treatment plants, pumping stations, etc.) incorporate automated sensors and control via SCADA. This approach enables operators to efficiently manage large operations with minimal staffing. But there is a gap in the level of information available when comparing plant facilities with transmission and distribution networks. This gap is narrowing as utilities begin installing arrays of sensors in pipes, manholes, lift stations and other structures. These technologies include everything from simple pressure and flow monitoring to advanced water quality analysis. The sensors can provide real-time visibility into the status and performance of the asset and overall system.
Instead of accessing the sensors via SCADA, utilities can use secure wireless Internet connectivity to connect large numbers of sensors to cloud-based or on-premise servers. This Internet of Things concept opens the door for deployment of smart metering, monitoring and control, as well as other devices that improve performance while reducing field costs. The approach can help address the broader challenges associated with water resource and aging infrastructure management.
For example, one water utility installed pressure sensors in fire hydrants along large transmission lines. They used the Trimble Unity cloud-based platform to collect and display the data in real time in the office and field. Information from the sensors enabled operators to identify pressure transients that could result in leakage or breaks. The sensors helped identify transients attributed to actions of automated pressure reducing valves. The utility used the information to implement methods to improve pressure management and avoid transients.
The Internet of Things can be applied to bypass manual data collection and provide a continuous real-time view of a water or wastewater network. For example, at many utilities, automated meter reading is evolving into a comprehensive automated metering infrastructure. Using real-time communications directly to a server, this can be coupled with water distribution network sensors to support efforts in demand management and conservation, while providing information needed for proactively managing a water system. By controlling valves, meters and other devices, automated systems can optimize operations and costs.
In addition to monitoring usage, flow, leakage and pressure, new technologies are emerging for sampling and chemical analysis to provide real-time information on water quality. In time, utilities will use Internet connectivity and smart sensors to maintain quality, prevent spills and overflows, minimize environmental impacts, and maintain public health and safety.
Innovation doesn’t sit still. Utilities are seeking and adopting new approaches in field operations. We can expect future field computing systems to include interactive, location-based 3D maps of water systems, above and below ground. New mobile devices can determine a worker’s location and point out nearby assets. Tablets and wearable technologies — think Google Glass — can superimpose underground assets into the image seen by the user. This technology of augmented reality provides a form of x-ray vision in the field. It can help workers find buried assets and avoid construction disasters.
A second concept to watch is Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and related smart asset technologies. Already proven in dozens of industries, RFID consists of small, rugged tags attached to an asset. The tags communicate via radio with a reader in a mobile device. In addition to confirming that personnel are working on the correct asset, the tags can store maintenance data and other manufacturer and operating information. For underground assets, RFID can inform workers about the contents of manholes, depth of an asset and instructions for operation.
As these and other technologies continue to evolve, it’s up to the water utility industry to recognize and grasp the opportunities. By taking advantage of the technologies available today and staying engaged with technological growth, organizations can realize essential gains in customer service, technical operations and financial performance.
The 2008 WRF report, "Field Computing Applications and Wireless Technologies for Water Utilities-3178," is available at www.waterrf.org.