It is uncontested that the last two decades have truly been transformative and disruptive in the world of IoT and sensors. A journey that mostly started with a simple glass electrode as an electrochemical sensor somewhere in the early nineties paved the way for many complex integrated systems, which we often witness in the present day. So much so that the total sensors market is pegged to cross 400 billion by 2030 as per recent reported numbers. With many complex and dynamic offerings like pressure sensors, temperature sensors, optic sensors, radar sensors, level sensors, humidity sensors, biosensors and many more, it’s hardly a surprise that the water industry is becoming one of the key adaptors of sensor-based systems.
According to a new report released by research firm IDTechEx, sensors in the water and wastewater treatment industries are an emerging technology market area, forecast to grow to $2 billion by 2030. These sensors will make up the wider application of IoT devices in cities, and the hype around them is growing. The sensors required are already in use in other industries, but are now being adopted by water and wastewater companies at different levels.
Uplifting the water industry with sensors
The current landscape of available sensor technologies for measuring a broad range of water quality parameters reflects both the global water pollution history and major technological developments over the past several years. Apart from technological advancements in sensors, which led to a wide variety of possibilities, other technological advancements also played a key role.
The first key element is the availability of a variety of sophisticated sensors and the decreasing cost, which are making the application both more efficient and effective. While the water industry is not new to using some basic sensors in the past, there are now various options to choose from based on the problem one is trying to solve. In a true sense, it is now that this technology is finding many mainstream applications. These sensors, once combined with Wi-Fi, data analytics platforms and mobile applications, can deliver multidimensional results, from leak detection to managing day-to-day plant operations to measuring the quality.
There is no end to the possibilities that this holds for the future. After all, the sensors can now measure PH, residual chlorine, turbidity, suspended solids, COD, BOD, conductivity, and dissolved oxygen and relay this data on a mobile app on a real-time basis. The technology to track leaks, identify pollutants, and monitor water treatment processes is available across many applications.
Monitoring wastewater with sensors
According to some studies, drinking water utilities might use on average more than 100 water quality sensors from source to tap, whereas wastewater utilities may install an average of 60 sensors per utility. These numbers are expected to only increase in the coming years. These sensors can be used in multiple applications across the water and wastewater industries to help companies and municipalities reach their targets and goals. For example, they can be used in water pipe networks, water treatment plants, wastewater pipe networks, and wastewater treatment plants.
Different industries have different needs when it comes to measuring and monitoring wastewater. For example, semiconductor manufacturers must ensure that their wastewater has no traces of metals in it. Similarly, chemical or pharmaceutical plants must ensure no traces of chemicals. This also applies to industries such as food and beverages, textile manufacturers, and pharmaceutical plants. The only issue is that it may not be the cheapest option available. However, the benefits outweigh the funding challenges in the long run. A positive trend here is that, as per statista.com, the average cost of IoT sensors has come down from $1.3 to $0.3 between 2012 and 2020 and is set to reduce further.
Secondly, a significant increase in cloud-based computing power allowed the data to be collected and analysed on a real-time basis. This, combined with the availability of wireless communication protocols, has allowed for sensor technologies to be applied at a much wider range of locations, including remote areas, which has enabled two-way communication between operating staff and the sensors.
It is estimated that the amount of energy wasted as a result of traditional methods of water processing and delivery can be reduced by up to 25% through more dynamic analytics and real-time system monitoring.
Collecting real-time information
In recent years, more and more sophisticated data analysis tools are becoming available, so that multi-parameter monitoring data of high spatial-temporal resolution can be collected and processed into meaningful information on a real-time basis on which management decisions can be based. The ubiquitous use of Wi-Fi and bluetooth through smartphones, along with the widespread availability of cell towers and public Wi-Fi access points, provides more access to the cloud for IoT sensors than ever before.
Thanks to the work done in remote connectivity, there are now many ways to get data to the cloud, like sensor to gateway to cloud, in which the sensor data is sent to a gateway which then transmits the data to the cloud. Depending on the application the gateway can range from simple relay systems to smart platforms that perform more computer-intensive functions or edge processing, Wi-Fi is a great example of a gateway that operates directly to the cloud.
Right from sensors to cell phones to a cloud, the gateway here can be a cell phone. Smartphones with Wi-Fi or bluetooth capability act as gateways to send data to the cloud. The data is also sent to the cloud from the smartphone, where further processing can be done and data can be shared. This has started to gain a lot of momentum lately due to low data fees and the low cost of smartphones. However, there are many instances where one needs the system to work in a remote location with no or low Wi-Fi.
The choice of IoT wireless communication depends on many factors like location of sensor deployment, power consumption, a quantity of data to be transferred along with convenience, Smartphones based solutions are going to get more widespread owing to fitting in most of the criteria.
The next wave of disruption
Recent developments in this space allow the integration of sensors, cloud-based infrastructure, data collection and analytical capabilities that have been emerging over recent years. With the increase in pervasive computing devices, lower-cost sensors that collect and transmit data, new analytic tools, and economic data storage options, a utility can now capture a lot more data in real-time at a lower cost, which wasn’t a possibility in the past, opening many possibilities given that one of the critical benefits of the IoT is its ability to evaluate data at a macro-level, enabling informed decision-making about operations and maintenance needs, potential supply chain disruptions, and process improvements.
Further development of drone or mini bot technologies also promotes the application possibilities of sensor technologies for water quality monitoring directly under water or from the air. A great example is a company called Watchtower Robotics based in the US, which has built a prototype of a soft-sided robot that can move along the inside of a pipe. Its sensors detect changes in force caused by water escaping due to a leak.
Another example worth mentioning here is Saneago, a major water and wastewater company in Brazil, which adopted ABB smart drives, motors and sensors to improve energy efficiency while boosting reliability at four key pumping stations last year. Remote condition-based monitoring also ensures a secure supply of drinking water for more than 5.7 million people and thousands of industrial and agricultural users.
Transforming the water industry
Many companies have already started offering PaaS- and SaaS-based solutions to their existing customers. Subscription-based business models are the new thing in the water industry and have found some solid ground in the past few years. This is a space that is only going to grow, and the next few years might see substantial growth in such offerings by big names in the industry. The word of caution here is data security, and that needs to be taken very seriously. Thankfully, data security is not limited to the water industry only. This is a much bigger challenge and has got global attention. However, greater responsibility lies with the bigger players in the industry.
Finally, the usage of IoT and sensors can help in many ways like water leakage detection, more efficient systemic water management, water quality and safety monitoring, transparency on wholesale/retail consumption, prescriptive maintenance on infrastructure and many more. It may not be hyperbole to claim that the next decade belongs to IoT and AI in water management.
Disclaimer: ‘The views are of the author and do not represent DuPont’