What will AI really do for the water industry?

From leak detection to forecasting usage, artificial intelligence has the potential to completely transform the water utilities sector

Digital water is coming. A sea change in the way utilities operate is underway thanks to the sector’s tech-savvy players, who are adopting artificial intelligence (AI), machine-learning and new data analytics to bring better efficiency and resilience to the water utility value chain.

While a wait-and-see approach predominates, those taking the plunge are moving quickly to overhaul utilities from the ground up and drive the understanding and adoption of digital solutions through exciting initiatives.

It’s about creating value, not just putting forward things thought to be technologically cool

Incredible computational power and advanced algorithms are helping to translate data into targeted, actionable intelligence. Meanwhile, the worldwide appetite for AI is projected only to grow. IDC estimates 2019 global spending on AI to be $35.8 billion, an amount it says could more than double to $79.2 billion by 2022.

Implementation of water technology slow

Collecting an estimated 300 million pieces of operational data each day, the water sector is the ideal candidate for a big data optimisation makeover.

The advent of cost-effective sensors and the internet of things present a further source from which to mine data, as sensors can be deployed in places which may have traditionally been left unmonitored, collecting condition and performance data to help detect leaks, forecast usage, predict failure and prevent theft.

“AI is in the atmosphere. Everybody is talking about it,” says Guangtao Fu, professor of water intelligence at Exeter University and a fellow of the Alan Turing Institute. “In the last ten years, new algorithms and new models from this field have improved on the low accuracy of predictions from artificial neural network models of the past, which in some cases might provide little more insight than relying on local knowledge.”

Compared with other industries, however, the implementation of digital solutions by water and waste water utilities has been slow. In a survey of water industry leaders by engineering, consulting and construction firm Black & Veatch, one third of respondents say their data remains siloed and unintegrated, while 55 per cent consider their data management strategy to be strong and improving, though lacking full integration, making it difficult to understand what’s occurring collectively across systems.

Water industry under threat

Water professionals are under no illusion regarding the scale and complexity of issues in the pipeline, from ageing infrastructure and swelling metropolises to the threat of weather extremes posed by climate change. Making systems optimally efficient and resilient is imperative to avoid interruptions to service and water shortage at crisis level.

“No one person or entity can manage that resource when faced with these big trends,” says Will Sarni, thought leader and chief executive of Water Foundry, who describes water’s challenges collectively to be a “wicked problem”. “So it’s about taking digital tools and applying them so we can ensure access to safe drinking water when faced with shocks to the system,” he says.

Advantages for early adopters of water technology

Although early movers in AI stand to benefit from better operational efficiencies in their own value chain, as well as establishing themselves as a reference for those hanging back on digital technologies, findings from global consultants Roland Berger suggest just 23 per cent of European utilities consider AI a high strategic priority and aim to be a first mover, while the majority (60 per cent) prefer to take a follower approach.

Just as important as beginning the digital journey is implementing the technology in a way that creates value. Jay Iyengar, senior vice president and chief innovation and technology officer at water technology provider Xylem, says: “A lot of these utilities are working with legacy systems and they are asking, ‘Do I need to replace everything? How much will it cost me?’ It’s important we take a customer-centric approach. It’s about creating value, not just putting forward things thought to be technologically cool.”

There are signs that utilities are making progress in a precursor to adoption, making organisational adjustments which will drive value as the tech is deployed. “We’re seeing a swing from tech being sat in with bread-and-butter IT to seeing chief data officers and data scientists coming in as disciplines,” says Mark Kaney, Black & Veatch’s director of asset management for Europe.

“We’re also seeing heads of innovation, innovation hubs, labs and shop windows helping organisations to keep pace, because as soon as they’ve got their head around one thing, it’s moved on.”

Collaboration vital to solve water crisis

Partnerships are being built, bolstered by a widespread belief that solving water will require more than just relying on the industry’s major players to address large-scale challenges.

“They are the guardians of health associated with access to water; I want them to err on the side of being cautious,” adds Mr Sarni. “It’s a smart approach we’re seeing right now from tech hubs and accelerators that are working very hard to identify innovative technologies, digital technologies in particular, and then working with utilities and the industrial sector and derisking those technologies, as opposed to a tech startup or provider trying to sell into a utility and get adoption at scale.”

For organisations with less funding and AI expertise, multi-cloud, multi-provider products and services with embedded AI are making the adoption process easier. Black and Veatch’s ECO-X cloud-based digital ecosystem enables integration with partners to provide digitally enabled asset management solutions across the asset life cycle. Subscriptions may be long or short term and ultimately the partnership provides flexibility and accessibility for utilities, while involving smaller digital enterprises and startups to drive innovation more quickly.

“This allows utilities access to that startup, but with the support of a large engineering company,” says Mr Kaney, who believes a blend of large and small companies creates the diversity needed to drive innovation forward. “Each company culture and way of working has its advantages. Smaller companies are faster moving and that creates an amount of creative tension so you’re always pushing each other to succeed. Everyone can feel they have a part to play and are engaged in finding the answer,” he concludes.