Setting the priorities

Instrumentation, sensing, measurement and control are all ripe for innovation, says Chris Jones, R&D manager, Northumbrian Water, and chairman of Sensor for Water Interest Group (SWIG), but what comes first?

The Innovation Leadership Group (ILG) was established in July 2010 and comprises key UK water sector stakeholders including Defra, economic and quality regulators and Water UK. Its first publication, Innovation Priorities for the UK Water Sector, seeks to highlight areas of water and wastewater services in which individuals and organisations are urged to develop innovative solutions.

The priorities are based on a review of water companies’ Strategic Direction Statements, the UKWIR report ‘A road map of strategic R&D needs to 2030’, and outputs of activities by various groups. It is clear that developments in measurement, sensing, instrumentation and control are fundamental to making significant advances in many of the priority areas.

Innovation requires us to set out a vision for the future, define goals to get us there and recognise that current practices and technologies will not deliver the vision to which we aspire. It is about people, not programmes, and this initiative will play a role in the essential alignment of development across the sector. It will provide market pull, encouraging to the supply chain to develop products and services for the UK water industry and thence into a global market.


Reducing leakage is top of the list. It relies on detecting and locating leaks quickly, and by fixing the biggest leaks first. Novel takes on traditional acoustic techniques are emerging, using fibre optics or installed correlators. Correlation techniques are also being applied to flow and pressure to identify leaks and bursts, and dynamic management of flows and pressures in networks is also effective at reducing overall leakage.

The effectiveness of such approaches is limited by the affordability and practicality of installing and operating significant numbers of widely distributed sensors. Reductions in total cost of ownership: power, communications and maintenance requirements, would be high on my innovation wish list. However, if leak-free pipes could be reliably installed in the first place we would gradually phase out the older leaky networks.


Climate change adaptation is the next priority area, specifically, to increase the resilience of our services to customers in the face of extremes in weather or operational demands. The report highlights network control and real-time management of assets as being key to meeting the challenge. Both areas clearly rely on acquiring reliable and timely information and feeding this into management and control systems that can actually use the information, rather than being overwhelmed by it. Real-time knowledge and control is also cited to deliver on environmental pollution prevention and sustainable drainage, as a means of realising efficiencies in water and wastewater processes and a route to reducing water supply interruptions.

Asset mapping
In recommending innovation to deliver comprehensive underground asset mapping, the ILG is targeting health and safety by reducing third party utility service damage. Any reduction in the time utility staff spend working in the highway will also reduce impacts on the local community and deliver operational efficiencies. Ideally the group would like to see the mapping of asset condition along with physical properties, extending our sensing interest to more materials focused applications.


The final priority areas are around supply and demand, starting with improving understanding of customer behaviour through accurate consumption information to promote education and reduce water consumption. This is captured in a priority theme around smart metering and self-powered water meters. In themes around sustainable abstraction and strategic connections for water stressed areas, the ILG turns to realtime management of resources and abstractions. Real-time control, along with ‘intelligent’ assets is seen as a panacea for the sector’s challenges.

In order to be successful this must extend to a system level, encompassing the sensor and the information generated in the context of a company’s performance targets and business processes. The water industry has to work with its supply chain to think about ‘real-time’, which may be daily for resource management and by the minute, for network management. How will companies use the information, what interventions it will drive and how it will integrate with the management systems required to deliver responsive actions?


Most importantly, the industry needs to know what it is all worth. Collecting, storing, validating and analysing data costs money. Customers are not going to pay for it to be done for its own sake, so there has to be a clear business case for investing in innovation in this area, which neither the water companies nor their supply chains can develop in isolation.

Innovation in any aspect requires creativity and there is immense scope to imagine what could be. What cannot be measured directly, that can be measured indirectly, using surrogates or soft-sensors?

What could be measured that currently cannot be, or cannot be done quickly enough, or cheaply enough? Can we learn from natural systems and employ biological or biomechanical approaches, autonomous or ubiquitous sensing systems? It is hard to argue with any of the priority areas identified by the ILG. The initiative complements the technology push of the industry’s suppliers, highlighting the need to work together to ensure successful, joined-up, innovation.

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