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Fixing a UK Utility Network from Space

Some of the most impactful companies in water bring technology from outside the sector and apply it to water’s unique challenges. Nowhere is this truer than in the case of Utilis (IH2O 2017). Taking tech developed for interplanetary exploration, the company has grown quickly to being one of the most important providers of leak detection data in the world. Looking through the eyes of the utility, water veteran Paul Gagliardo walks us through what it’s like to bring something truly scalable to bear on utility operations.

Recently Italian researchers analyzing RADAR signals gathered over three years from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft discovered a large lake of salty water buried deep below the surface of Mars. This seems like science fiction, but many water agencies are currently using the same technology here on earth. The difference is that water agencies, such as Severn Trent in the UK, are not looking for underground lakes; they are looking for leakage from their drinking water distribution pipes.

Severn Trent is one of the largest water companies in the United Kingdom. They serve almost 8 million customers through 4 million service connections. Severn Trent owns and maintains 49,000 Km of distribution and transmission mains and serves large metropolitan areas such as Birmingham in England’s West Midlands region. Severn Trent delivers two billion litres of water every day to their customers and over the past ten years the company has reduced leakage by 20%. But recently the Regulator in England, Ofwat, have mandated that all water utilities must further reduce their NRW leakage in the next five year cycle by an additional 15% by 2025. Severn Trent is committed to exploring all available viable technologies to accomplish this goal, including using drones and satellites to help spot leaks. They have also announced a multi-million pound plan to install new monitoring devices in the pipe network to help prevent bursts.

To reach this lofty goal Severn Trent deploys hundreds of crews to pro-actively search for leaks using standard technology in the field. The field leak crews are directed using a number of analytical tools including fixed base acoustic leak detection systems, pressure and flow monitoring devices and distribution system modeling. The system modeling can isolate real or virtual metered areas, detecting anomalies in the water demand that predict leaking pipes.

One of newest arrows in their quiver is using Utilis satellite imagery to detect leaking pipes remotely. The satellite imagery works the same way as the Mars imagery, illuminating the earth with RADAR waves and collecting and analyzing the returned images to look for underground water signatures. It is important for Severn Trent to use all methodologies available, to ensure they can meet this water reduction challenge in the most efficient way possible. The remote satellite imagery allows leak detection crews to be deployed to specific areas in the system that have the highest likelihood of leaks. This increases the crew’s overall efficiency because they are directed to the areas where there are more likely to be leaks, thus they find many more leaks in a given shift.

A first trial was held in Birmingham, UK, and achieved a 25% true positive rate of success. True positive is a measure of success; the number of Utilis identified sites that have at least one leak when investigated. Sometimes first trials in new areas generate lower than expected performance when using Utilis. Training and experienced leak detection crews are critical to success. When the second trial was held, the true positive rate was over 50%. Because many Utilis identified sites results in the finding of more than one leak, another success metric is used: leaks per site investigated.

The number of leaks found per site inspected was over 0.75 in this trial; in other words, the inspectors find three leaks for every four sites they investigate. Project Manager Samuel Berry of Severn Trent observed that “the technology is very good at finding the many small leaks in the system. That really helps reduce the NRW and ensure we meet our customer expectations to find leaks as quickly and efficiently as possible. The results are especially good at identifying leaks on plastic pipe versus other technologies.”

Utilis is not resting on its laurels. Advances in satellite RADAR capabilities and analysis algorithms are improving the performance of existing products and services. Aircraft mounted RADAR is being tested to determine image resolution improvement and impact on performance. New products and services are being developed that will focus on areas outside of potable water pipes to detect inflow and infiltration from wastewater systems. Remote imaging of earth, made ubiquitous by the Weather Channel, is becoming a prime source of new information that can be utilized to assist utility managers in their quest to best manage their systems.

Utilis were the winner of Imagine H2O’s second Data Challenge in 2017. For more information, please visit www.utilis.com. Imagine H2O’s 2019 Accelerator is open to applications until Nov. 1, 2019. Learn more here .