Key takeaways

  • A Melbourne water utility has recently begun trialling internet of things technology across its water and sewer network.
  • From robotics to 3D optical scanning, Australia’s utilities sector has a rich history of technological innovation.
  • The water and wastewater industries are well positioned to adopt internet of things technology compared to other sectors.

Last week, Victorian water utility South East Water announced a three-month trial of a new internet of things technology across several of its infrastructure sites around Melbourne, an initiative that could be dubbed the ‘internet of sewers’.

According to the utility, the trial’s aim is to extend the use of real-time monitoring and improve the safety and efficiency of its water and sewer assets. By pairing sensors and software with ‘narrowband IoT’ communications technology (which offers coverage in hard-to-reach places and requires little power), South East Water has facilitated the connection of thousands of its physical objects, from infrastructure, to hand-held devices, wearables and vehicles.

The trial is an intriguing development for the Australian utilities sector. It hints at the potential benefits to be had when a mature industry adopts internet of things technology – one of the more talked-about innovations of recent years. It is also a clear signal that the internet of things will be able to enhance a wider array of industries beyond that of household appliances and automobiles, two sectors where the technology is currently achieving the most traction.

the internet of sewers

Essentially, the formula for an internet of sewers is the same as other incorporations of internet of things technology: a network of previously ‘dumb’ (but frequently utilised) assets are augmented with an internet connection and computer processing power. Not only does this open up to analysis the usage statistics of these assets, it allows them to be connected to other peripheral assets to form an intelligent network that can be better monitored and optimised.

While the integration of internet of things capability into the city’s pipes and sewers is a big step forward, the utilities sector itself has a long, storied history of cultivating technological innovation and advancements. Because of this ongoing evolution, the industry is arguably more prepared than most to successfully adopt internet of things technology (security issues notwithstanding) and may eventually prove to be a watershed case study.

The make-or-break world
of asset management

For those that bustle and toil beneath the ground, the idea of a connected internet of sewers is not at all outlandish. Over the last century, advancing technology has helped transform the practice of asset management in the water and wastewater industries, with utilities adopting increasingly sophisticated solutions to keep vast networks of pipes, reservoirs, treatment plants and pump stations in good working order.

On the face of it, asset management might sound like a boring discipline swamped in spreadsheets, inspection checklists and reports. The reality, however, is much different: in the world of water and wastewater, asset management is an under-resourced race against time, where a huge network of constantly decaying infrastructure must be kept flowing as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible.

Constrained by economies of scale and fixed-asset lifecycles (the design life of most pipes is generally 50 years, depending on material), utilities must regularly scan their thousands of kilometres of pipeline infrastructure so they can isolate problem areas and deploy their limited resources on the assets that need it most.

Fending off

The list of threats against water and wastewater assets is lengthy and exotic. It includes hydrogen sulphide gas corrosion, intruding tree roots, illegal sewage connections, insoluble wet wipes, stray underground electric currents, and even ‘fatbergs’ (these are as foul as their name implies). With each ailment a distinct threat to the structural integrity of an underground asset, utilities must take a continuously proactive approach to monitoring their entire asset network to minimise the risk of critical failure.

It is here where technology re-enters the fray. Since the 1950s, water utilities have regularly deployed a wide range of cutting-edge solutions to help monitor their asset networks, including acoustic scanning, 3D optical scanning, and closed-circuit television. These technologies were largely deployed locally using handheld or pole-mounted variants. More recently, they’ve been mounted on a robotic ‘crawler’ and sent many kilometers underground – the cameras, infrared scanners and microphones sending large amounts of condition data back to a main control centre.

These hardware innovations have been matched with similarly advancing software, with new programs able to gather and analyse vast swathes of data across the supply chain, from diagnostic information and mapping through to end-user activity. The latest iterations in Melbourne see sensors embedded in infrastructure, such as chips on manhole covers to alert the utility to unauthorised access, or in rainwater tanks to monitor water levels and harvesting or stormwater run-off.

The future
may already be here

In 2012, the Water Finance Research Foundation conducted a comparative review of 14 different asset management software systems available on the market, showing a high level of competition and innovation in the sector, as well as a successful adoption of big data principles.

With such a sophisticated array of technologies already deployed in the water and wastewater industries, it is no small surprise that utility companies are continually finding new ways to better monitor what lies beneath our feet. Framed in this light, the internet of sewers is a logical next step.

In fact, given the history of technological innovation in the water and wastewater industries – combined with these advances not requiring mainstream consumer adoption or changing customer behaviour – it is entirely possible that our water pipes and sewers will be talking to each other long before our televisions, fridges and cars.