Industry Voices—Gold: The IoT is providing water security to a thirsty planet

IoT cellular (pixabay)
Wireless technologies are helping farmers control irrigation of their crops in India.

In many areas, the wireless IoT and related technologies will have a major impact over the next three to five years, and 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 three to five years will dramatically enhance many parts of the world’s ability to combat the epidemic of water insecurity, even in places where water may be relatively plentiful. Let’s look at a couple of examples of what’s being done.

Enabling entrepreneurs in emerging markets

One place that has chronic water shortages is India. India is largely an agrarian economy, with 58% 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 startup and a finalist in the Qualcomm Design in India Challenge—a program supporting 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.

The company uses 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.

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 reach for many local farmers. Cost was a primary design goal for the Avanijal equipment, which is priced 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 phone and schedules the irrigation. With the growing installed base of smart phones and wireless infrastructure now established even in emerging markets like India, new opportunities to automate previously manual processes are coming to market to ultimately strengthen the entire community. And the “democratization” of the IoT means many opportunities for localized startups to provide targeted solutions in market where they have intimate knowledge.

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.

Opportunities in mature markets as well

But concerns regarding water resources are not limited to emerging countries with drought conditions. Even in those areas where significant water exists, such as the United States, water loss is a critical area of concern.

According to the International Water Association, nonrevenue water accounts for up to 25% of the water supply globally, meaning that one-fourth of water produced is lost along the way from source to 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 and Gwinnett County Department of Water Resources in Georgia and Qualcomm 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.

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 more than 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 wirelessly connected IoT and smart technology to improve overall water security for the community.

These two examples demonstrate that the emergence of connected systems using wireless networks and smart sensors/actuators can have a major positive impact. While it’s still early in the lifecycle, I expect the IoT and related smart technologies to offer a key advance in both preserving resources as well as stimulating business and employment opportunities. It 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 two to three years as more of these kinds of examples show the true potential for IoT in our wirelessly enabled world 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.

Jack Gold is the founder and principal analyst at J.Gold Associates, LLC., an analyst firm based in Northborough, MA. With more than 45 years of experience in the computer and electronics industries, and 25 years as a tech industry analyst, he covers the many aspects of business and consumer computing and emerging technologies. Follow him on Twitter @jckgld or LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/jckgld

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