How 5G could steer the future of water management
Australia’s water sector is evolving. A combination of new technologies that provides greater capabilities and insight into water management, along with challenges in water resource access and consumer demand, is changing the way Australia utilises and controls its water.
A key technological driver for this development is 5G. The fifth generation of wireless communication technology allows for greater data transfer speeds and bandwidth, more connection reliability, and better performance for digital devices.
5G has the potential to supercharge the Internet of Things (IoT) – the integration and connection of many different devices, sensors and applications, allowing them to talk to one another and give users greater insight into how they operate.
While much of the 5G focus is on consumers and how it facilitates smart appliances, where it really changes the world is through industrial application. In terms of the water sector, it’s all about gaining insights and control.
When it comes to the impact of 5G, the possibilities are numerous, especially for regional and rural water networks.
The technology allows for a more seamless big data approach, giving utilities the ability to see everything from water flow and temperature to turbidity and contaminants, and gain deeper insight into operations.
More importantly, 5G allows utilities to automate, monitor and centralise infrastructure over vast distances. Underlying all of this is the key aspect of 5G – low latency. This means communication happens in real time, with little to no lag or reduced response times.
An essential 5G development is supporting the connection of countless water resource management devices – potentially up to a million sensors per square kilometre – into a centralised management space.
This allows a large volume of information to become available to utilities so they can perform in-depth analyses, highlight changing usage patterns or potential risks, and then adapt accordingly.
The importance of accessing sensor data was recently highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic through the Collaboration on Sewage Surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 (ColoSSoS) program.
ColoSSoS utilised sensor data from multiple locations to track and trace potential COVID-19 outbreaks, collaborating with state health departments to gather up-to-date information on the spread of the virus.
For rural and regional water resource management, 5G provides remote assistance capabilities, which could allow experts with highly specialised knowledge from anywhere in Australia to fix onsite issues digitally.
This means the best, rather than the nearest, person can fix a problem in a timely fashion, reducing the need for travel.
Another bandwidth aspect to consider is the potential for augmented or virtual reality. By recreating infrastructure or workplaces in a virtual environment, known as a “digital twin”, people can train on any infrastructure to aid maintenance.
Through augmented reality, highly skilled, almost face-to-face technical assistance could be provided to those on the ground in real time, for example, in the repair of specialised equipment.
Remote control of automated or robotic processes could allow drones to conduct inspections of remote pipelines or difficult to access infrastructure, improving safety and preventative maintenance processes.
Security is also enhanced through the shift to 5G. As the digitisation of utility infrastructure and number of devices on the network grows, so too do the risks.
Between 2019 and 2021, in the US alone, hackers accessed water treatment and management facilities five times, attempting to threaten or contaminate water supplies.
An increased numbers of sensors provides more potential entry points for hackers, while many IoT devices have ineffective security measures.
But 5G provides protection through network slicing that isolates networks, provides more robust encryptions, and edge computing that allows data to be processed closer to the network for better threat identification.
Another bonus is the extended sensor life. The wireless network uses less energy, reducing battery consumption, meaning a more sustainable system that requires fewer repairs.
However, there are cons to 5G, including decreased broadcast distance that requires more towers for coverage and a huge battery drain for older devices.
LEADING THE EVOLUTION
What sets 5G apart from other network technology is that it was designed to benefit industrial applications.
“It’s fundamentally enabling game-changing technology in industries and industrial uses cases,” explained Warren Jennings, the Industry Chief Technology Officer for Agribusiness and Supply Chain and Retail for Telstra Enterprise.
It is not just about access to greater bandwidth of data, but how 5G is allowing utilities to approach gathering that information.
“We’re doing work with the Queensland Government, who are deploying video analytic processes at waterways’ crucial points to carry out waterflow measurements,” he said.
“Typically, they’d have to do hydrographic analysis to understand the flow profile, but this can be a dangerous model as people have to get into the water to install sensors.”
It can also be expensive as the sensors are fragile, and as debris enters the water the sensor units get wiped out.
“By using video analytics at strategic points outside of the waterways, they can instead use the data and analyse the images to estimate waterflows, which is much safer,” Jennings said.
Different forms of analysis can even be conducted on the same images to get an understanding of debris loads following wet seasons, so the utility can understand where to look for potential bridge or culvert damage.
Another example of 5G in action is the work being conducted in the Burdekin Catchment, measuring waterways for turbidity, nitrogen, and sensing nutrients to monitor their potential impact on the Great Barrier Reef.
Jennings said the ability of 5G to deploy more sensors at scale across a network allows for easier monitoring of nutrient flows, granting farmers deeper understanding of their behaviours, and giving regulators and researchers better data on where the nutrients flow into the reef.
Due to 5G’s network slicing capability, state and federal government agencies can measure water outtakes against rights and allocations, providing data visibility to different stakeholders while still preserving different rights to privacy.
Telstra sees its role as supporting the water sector to change the economics of instrumenting water assets, making it easier for participants to share data about these assets and develop insights into their best use.
Collaboration, however, is key to harnessing 5G’s full potential, said Jennings.
“Telstra has already deployed the widest ranging network in Australia; we have knowledge across a range of different sectors,” he said.
“But when it comes to the water industry, the industry themselves are the experts, so we are very keen to work closely with participants to develop and deploy 5G.”
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK
For Sunwater, Queensland’s state-owned water corporation, the potential for 5G and its impact on improving automation and IoT network applications is already being explored.
“Sunwater’s previously non-telemetered technologies such as water meters and other water monitoring devices now utilise the 4G network and will transition to 5G where feasible,” a Sunwater spokesperson said.
“The integration of 5G will improve the speed of information, allowing for easier accessibility and visibility of water data for Sunwater and its customers.”
The spokesperson added that the integration of 5G is also expected to generate cost savings for the business and its customers. Due to Australia’s scale, total 5G integration will probably be a piecemeal process for most utilities.
But Sunwater said it is prepared for an ever-evolving technological environment.
“Sunwater is progressively working towards large-scale adoption of 5G as it is time and cost intensive, but unlike metro areas, universal 5G coverage across the regional and remote areas in which Sunwater operates is still not confirmed,” the spokesperson said.
The possibilities of 5G are only beginning to be explored. As the technology continues to evolve – and the needs of consumers change – 5G’s technological edge will allow the water sector to adapt to address shifting demands and new environmental challenges.
First published as ‘Riding the 5G Wave’ in Current, May 2022.