How IoT will take utilities into the post-Covid world

By UnaBiz

Exclusive interview with Jonathan Tan, Managing Director of UnaBiz Singapore

In 430 BCE, a mysterious illness ravaged Athens. As tens of thousands died, social order broke down. Athens fell from power, and the disease altered history.

Today, our lives are being rewritten as we adapt to Covid-19. Long term trends have emerged out of the pandemic, first and foremost, the accelerated move towards digitisation.

We are envisaging new possibilities for how critical services with legacy assets like water, gas, power and sanitation will evolve and challenge traditional ways of working.

Digitising utilities with sensors

All of our jobs are rapidly changing, but not at an equal rate. Maintenance and monitoring roles that require people to visit houses or travel between multiple facilities are not possible during this pandemic, but sensors could allow utilities to do this work remotely.

By digitising water meters with sensors, utility staff will no longer need to visit every housing block and estate to take readings, reducing the risk of infection. This will also enable much more regular collection of data as sensors will allow water utilities to gather data in real-time.

This data then allows utilities to personalise services to customers, develop new solutions, and make operations more efficient. For example, companies can use it to understand usage patterns and manage supply. Sharing these insights with consumers allows them to monitor their own use.

“Smart meter is not just about automating the manual meter reading process; it is also about transforming the utility business digitally and giving freedom back to consumers. Once consumers can monitor their usage pattern, they can adjust their habits on their own terms to save water and save on utility bills,” explains Jonathan Tan, Managing Director of UnaBiz Singapore. “Utility companies can also incentivise their customers so that in the long term you can reshape customer behaviour.”

Smart meters have already allowed Japanese gas utility NICIGAS to create differentiated pricing plans based on consumption at peak and off-peak seasons. The utility shares usage data with consumers through an app, enabling a timely replacement of gas cylinders.

Going further, sensors on pipelines and pumps can allow water and gas utilities to conduct predictive maintenance. Using data from sensors, weather and maintenance logs, utilities can predict the time and location of equipment failure and plan maintenance in advance, reducing the need for human visits further.

Cities are already using sensors to manage sanitation and deploy environmental service staff more effectively. Public toilets are normally cleaned on a regular schedule, regardless of use, but some need more attention than others. UnaBiz is working on a smart toilet project to install sensors in toilets at train stations. These measure the number of people who have used the toilet, ammonia levels, and gather feedback from users to gauge the cleanliness of the facility at all times, Tan says.

Insights gathered from data can allow companies to create smarter cleaning rotas, reducing the number of people travelling around while still ensuring good public facilities. By monitoring the service quality in real-time with sensors, governments can use an outcome-based approach to evaluate the performance of their facilities, rather than requiring a fixed headcount. This allows facilities to maintain a smaller team of essential workers for maintenance.

Scaling up IoT with 0G

As cities look to these new ways of working, they will need technologies that are cost-effective and easy to deploy, to rapidly adapt and scale up their use of IoT.

To create an efficient sensor network, less is more. By minimising data collection to only what is necessary and relevant to gather specific insights, it reduces cost and uses less power, allowing devices to enjoy longer energy autonomy. “It becomes very lightweight and lasts a very long time - That is the beauty of 0G,” Tan adds.

Sensors based on 0G networks are longer lasting, even more energy efficient and have lower costs. 0G is perfectly suited for utilities and smart city applications as they are the most reliable and affordable networks to transmit data at scale over long distances.

They are low-energy and are built to last with little maintenance. “You want a network with very little consumption so that it can last a very long time,” Tan explains. “If you use a 3G network consumption, a sensor battery will probably last a few days. If not, you need to put a power cable up to power it.” A water meter running on a 0G network could last 15 years without anyone having to inspect it or change the battery.

Utility infrastructure and assets are built to last decades so it is important that the new technologies will too. This efficiency has been crucial to NICIGAS’s partnership with UnaBiz to connect 850,000 gas meters nationwide on a 0G network.

Instead of a complete rehaul of legacy assets, UnaBiz fit new energy-efficient smart units on the existing gas meter. The meter reader is designed to last over 10 years on its internal batteries. The digitisation of the gas consumption management has allowed the gas company to gather more data in a precise way at a much lower cost compared to manual reading.

Network as a Service

Even with smart sensors and 0G, IoT networks are complicated to install, operate and manage, particularly given their scale. “It’s extremely difficult and expensive to deploy your own network to run your IoT project,” Tan explains.

Increasingly, organisations find it “more cost effective and useful to buy this Network-as-a-service from an operator” Tan, he says. Businesses need not necessarily invest heavily in network infrastructure to scale up. With network-as-a-service, an operator takes responsibility for the full network. This takes the load off companies for network maintenance and management, and allowing them to focus on their core competencies, - whether that is sanitation, traffic, water or roads.

Utilities can focus on the data and the software layer, from predictive maintenance or customer apps, to help them understand consumption.

Tan shares, “CIOs will be competent in the software, analytics, and business process, but probably not the network. That’s where Network-as-a-Service comes in.”

From water to sanitation, gas to government - lightweight sensors based on the 0G network, and a modern Network-as-a-service partnership will support critical suppliers in cities to emerge stronger from this crisis.