Can IoT provide water security to a thirsty planet?

IoT and mobile technology has the potential to dramatically reduce water insecurity in many parts of the world.

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There are many areas where IoT and related technologies will have a major impact over the next 3 to 5 years. I expect Smart Cities technologies to be one of the fastest growing segments of the broader IoT market. Indeed, with all of the potential benefits an intelligent infrastructure can provide in the way of cost savings, more efficient services, personal safety and saving natural resources, it has the potential to significantly and positively impact us all.

One of the key areas to address in this space will be the ability to better manage water resources. Water insecurity is not uncommon in many parts of the world. And it is often a hindrance to producing enough food, sustaining a healthy environment for people to live in, and providing employment opportunities. I expect IoT and smart technologies over the next 3 to 5 years to dramatically enhance many parts of the world’s ability to combat the epidemic of water insecurity, even in those places where water may be relatively plentiful. Let’s look at a couple of examples of what’s being done:

One place that has chronic water shortages is India. India is largely an agrarian economy with 58 percent of households dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. But India has areas of drought and poor infrastructure, resulting in low crop yields and diminished employment opportunities. One of the biggest challenges has been effective irrigation, especially for small scale farmers who use drip or sprinkler systems. Avanijal Agri Automation is a local start-up and a finalist in the Qualcomm Design in India Challenge – a program looking for local companies to create innovative hardware product designs that solve pressing community needs. Avanijal developed a low cost controller that works with IoT and wireless technologies to allow farmers to precisely control irrigation of their crops by using a mobile app. They use smartphones to wirelessly manage intelligent Bluetooth-connected irrigation controllers for sensor data collection and to control the irrigation motors and valves. This is a great example of how localized IoT solutions can be developed and deployed taking advantage of technologies available at global scale as a result of the worldwide mobile revolution, and when encouraged and supported by programs like this one.

Why is local entrepreneurship necessary? India is a very price sensitive market. Many global companies offer products, but the features Indian farmers need are not always supported and the devices are often expensive and out of the reach of many local farmers. Cost was a primary design goal for the Avanijal equipment which is priced at between $500 and $1,500, well below competing products and affordable for many small scale farmers. Once the controller is installed, the farmer uses a downloaded app on an Android smartphone and schedules the irrigation. With the growing installed base of smart phones now established even in emerging markets like India, new opportunities to automate previously manual processes are emerging to ultimately strengthen the entire community. And the “democratization” of IoT means many opportunities for localized startups to provide targeted solutions in a market they have intimate knowledge of. I expect many more companies around the globe to do this in the coming couple of years, helping both the end users (in this case, farmers) as well as creating new business and employment opportunities.

But water resources are not only a concern in emerging countries with drought conditions. Even in those areas where significant water exists such as the U.S., water loss is a critical area of concern. According to the International Water Association, non-revenue water accounts for up to 25 percent of the water supply globally, meaning that 25 percent of water produced is lost along the way from its source to the destination and never gets delivered to its intended user. Not only is this a significant revenue loss for many water authorities, it’s also a critical component of the need for water restrictions in drought affected areas. Recently, AT&T, CH2M, Qualcomm and Gwinnett County Department of Water Resources in Georgia collaborated on a pilot project that the county hopes will have significant impact by reducing the amount of water loss. While on a different scale than the project in India, this project nevertheless can offer much improved water resource stability to the many people it serves. And it can reduce cost to consumers as well.

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Indeed, Smart Cities programs such as this one hold the promise of radically changing the way services are delivered. Gwinnett County’s water utility serves a population of nearly 900,000 through over 3,700 miles of distribution pipe and 250,000 service connections. And while the losses in their system are relatively small compared to other utilities, it’s still a major revenue and resource loss. The Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) system uses newly developed ultrasonic meters wirelessly connected over AT&T’s LTE network. The smart meter network tracks water as it moves through the system. Data analysis allows a rapid response to any system leaks that may occur, and eventually the knowledge gained will enable a predictive leak system to be deployed, further benefiting the water utility’s operations. The goal is to dramatically reduce losses and to use IoT and smart technology to improve overall water security for the community.

These two examples demonstrate that the emergence of IoT connected systems using wireless solutions and smart sensors/actuators can have a major positive impact. While it’s still early on in the lifecycle, I expect IoT and related smart technologies to offer a key advance in both preserving resources as well as stimulating business and employment opportunities. It's a win-win for both vendors creating solutions as well as those communities positively affected by them. While there are many examples of positive benefits, the biggest risk to implementation is often the lack of a public strategy. I expect that to change dramatically over the next 2 to 3 years as more of these kinds of examples show the true potential for IoT in making lives better in Smart Cities and rural areas too. If you’re not already planning for this in your community, you will be left behind.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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