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Vitens: IoT turns water utility into real-time data company

Friday 9 June 2017 | 12:01 CET | Background

Water company Vitens is evolving into a 'data-driven' organisation, embracing new technology. The company could be considered a pioneer among water companies when it comes to taking advantage of IoT. Rik Thijssen, manager business development at Vitens, told Telecompaper in an interview that within two years, the company will be completely transformed. 

 

Vitens' around 1,400 employees ensure the water supply for 5.7 million customers in the Netherlands. The company is looking to optimise its service and performance, for customers and its 49,500-km network of pipes. Ensuring reliable data that can be turned into actionable information is essential to this. 

I(o)T layers

Vitens started down the innovation path around 5-6 years ago when it set up a system for real-time data supporting its three core goals: local business expertise, pushing the limits of its work and remaining relevant for customers.  According to Thijssen, the company realised it needed real-time measurements on its water quality and also wanted to pro-actively improve interaction with customers. It also could learn more about its underground infrastructure, which at times appeared a 'black box’.   

A multi-disciplinary team was set up and given free reign by management to explore new possibilities. The Vitens Innovation Playground (VIP) resulted in a large number of interesting projects which have since been realised or are under implementation. The most prominent was Friesland Live!, an ambitious project presented at the end of 2015. 

The project involved deploying around 200 sensors along 9,000 km of water network in the province of Friesland to measure water demand and quality in real time. It cost around EUR 3 million in investment. The preliminary research was financed in part by a EUR 12 million subsidy from the EU for the project 'Smart Water for Europe'. 

In-house expertise

The FrieslandLive! smart water grid positions Vitens as an early leader in Europe, and possibly worldwide. The technology is undergoing further experimentation at the Vitens Innovation Playground in Leeuwarden, where the company works with sensor suppliers such as Optiqua, as well as small data specialists. 

Thijssen noted that Vitens is not working with big companies, for multiple reasons. First, it could not find any match for its specific aims, with no integrated solution available yet for water companies. Second, it wanted to develop its own in-house expertise, in order to preserve its independence and adaptability. 

There may come a moment when the company has a "big IT sheet lying over us", Thijssen said, but it's not the case yet. First it's creating its own critical mass within Vitens. Its IT department counts 90 people, of which 15 are actively involved in IoT.

Sensus Flexnet

Vitens also recently conducted a successful pilot with the Sensus FlexNet communications network. Sensus is a brand of Xylem and provides communication technology, advanced metrology and data analysis for the utilities sector. In response to the growth in connected sensors and devices, Sensus developed special applications for strategic IoT applications on the FlexNet communication network.

The pilot focused on ensuring reliable and safe remote communication with meters difficult to access, due to distance or obstacles. The test in Leeuwarden proved 100 percent successful, underlining the advantages of using specialised communication technology developed for the utilities sector. 

FlexNet uses specific licensed spectrum, managed by Entropia and ComBus Technologies, which is protected from interference from other networks or devices. This offers better security and reliability compared to IoT networks using unlicensed spectrum, as well as near real-time data transmission. Sensus signed an agreement early this year with Entropia and Combus.

Converged data platform

The focus in many sectors is on monitoring and measurement. Vitens is looking at which information it wants to collect, preferably in real-time. Its system developed in house can now provide this at a very detailed level. The 'traffic tower' assembles data from a variety of levels, from the pipe network to even deeper, using sensors to check aspects such as pressure, flow, pH and temperature.

To process the 'big data', Vitens uses algorithms developed in-house and real-time data processing technology from MapR, a specialist in Hadoop. Social media also plays a role in the converged data platform, with notifications an important way to communicate with the customer. Vitens has its own Social Media Monitor, Thijssen said. Tweets give it direct insight into eventual problems such as leaking pipes. In calamity situations, it receives a heat map and it can send out notifications over SMS. 

Vitens still wants to go further than most water companies and maintain its lead in the adoption of new technologies. It's not just about the end goal - there is a great deal of "spin-off" from which the company profits, said Thijssen.

Swimming sensor

One of the more promising solutions on which it's working at the moment is a swimming sensor. This can serve as a real-time inspector in the pipe network and report back on leaks or required maintenance. Automatic notifications are sent to the central water management centre, where the problems can be visualised in detail on a computer. The innovation comes from the oil and gas industry. 

Ten water companies have agreed to work together on developing the swimming sensor. Thijssen noted that it's remarkable to see Dutch water companies taking the lead in this, given that they already have very low losses to leaks (non-revenue water, NRW), at around 0.5 percent. In other places such as London this can be as high as 25 percent. 

Thijssen expects that within two years Vitens will be completely transformed, in part thanks to the new IoT-related technologies. "We remain a public water company, but with a much improved performance, lower operational costs and optimal customer interaction," he said. 



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