In the media

Industry Comment: Technology for resilience

By Andrew Burrows

The Water Report

27 April 2020

This article first appeared in The Water Report

Resilience has always been an important priority for the sector, but threats are increasing in frequency, interconnectivity and unpredictability. Few people planning resilience will have anticipated the full breadth and depth of the impact of a global pandemic of the scale we are facing now with the coronavirus. 

Through this crisis, utilities have continued the uninterrupted supply of safe drinking water and wastewater services by securing chemical supplies, cutting non-essential work and rapidly developing IT systems to support remote working and decentralised customer support services.  As this situation continues, new challenges are emerging and opportunities for technology solutions both for now and future crisis mitigation become apparent.

Digital twins and demand

One of the emerging consequences is an overall increase in demand of up to 20%.  While non-household demand has significantly reduced, household demand is soaring.  The combination of staying at home, children being home from school, a prolonged period of dry sunny weather over Easter and a surge in home-growing of vegetables are all contributing to an unusually high per capita consumption.  As we move towards what may be another hot dry summer with more home working, households are increasingly unlikely to be travelling to the normal holiday hotspots and consequentially utilities operations teams are now focussing on how to forecast demand in the suburbs and ensure the security of supply.

Technology can play a role in all these areas. The dramatic change in consumption patterns presents the opportunity to improve forecasting using analytical methods in digital twins – applying pattern recognition and learning algorithms to the recent historic data from existing GIS, telemetry and external data to generate virtual models of demand to enable forecasting and exploration of the driving factors.

This type of advanced analytics has the potential to more accurately model the allowances that underpin the forecasts and leakage calculations and to identify potential network constraints. Indeed, analysis of the evolving data is generating evidence that this could be an opportunity to correct historic assumptions around non-household allowances which may have a positive impact on future reported leakage.

The application of learning algorithms in digital twins have the potential to affect control, to reduce demand and ensure continuity of supply.  Digital twins can be applied to controlling the pumps and valves in the networks, intelligently controlling pressures to moderate demand, particularly of hosepipe and other open tap consumption while also reducing leakage and burst frequency in the network.

Going solo – with cobots

The operations field workforce capacity is another significant challenge area. It would be easy to assume this is down to workforce availability but staffng levels have  returned close to normal levels. The issue is more nuanced. Social distancing measures are preventing staff from sharing vans normally occupied by two or three workers and work requiring staff to work in close proximity to each other or to the public is suspended.

Suspending non-essential work can only be done for so long and the impacts of increasing domestic demand on the network as we move into summer needs the attention of the field force. Applying technologies from the medical, military and emergency services sectors such AI, robotics and remote monitoring to support single worker operations would release capacity under these circumstances.

The challenges for single worker operations broadly fall into two categories – health and safety and the practical challenges working with tools and the field assets. AI and collaborative robots (cobots) have the potential to address these challenges. Some utilities are already responding to the challenge by experimenting with the application of body cameras, linked back to remote supervisors who support the work in real time, allow the worker to work remotely knowing they can ask for help and that their health and safety is being monitored. The solution also relies on bespoke field applications on tablets to guide the remote operator through the process, capturing the steps and providing a log of activity for quality assurance.

Cobots have the potential to scale this approach, combining image recognition, 3D laser scanning, audio monitoring and AI voice support with software that guides the operators through field processes.

Cobots can be developed in an agile and incremental way. A typical starting point would be development of AI software on the latest generation of tablets which incorporate 3D laser scanning and high-quality cameras for image recognition and the integration with cloud AI, voice and speech services. Enhancements to this approach could see the development of cobots with custom physical robotic features that provide the physical support – for example lifting of heavy covers and supporting some of the basic operations normally carried out by a second person. 

The detailed resilience measures put in place by utilities have helped to maintain safe water and wastewater services through these extraordinary times. The current and evolving challenges can now be seen as an opportunity to apply ingenuity with a technology-driven operation to address the evolving and future challenges and improve operational resilience for a positive human future.

Andrew Burrows is an energy and utilities expert at PA Consulting

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