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M. Martin (ACCIONA): "AI is starting to emerge as an effective tool for smart water management"

  • M. Martin (ACCIONA): "AI is starting to emerge as an effective tool for smart water management"
  • The fourth industrial revolution is already a reality at ACCIONA. Specifically, in the water department, digitalisation has become a reality through the Water Control Centre (CECOA).

About the entity

The water business of ACCIONA concentrates on water treatment and reverse osmosis desalination, a technology in which it is the world leader.

ACCIONA is committed to the digital transformation in integrated water cycle management, and to this effect has put into use some disruptive tools which are already transforming the way the sector works.

Mariano Martin Tirado, in charge of Production and Business Development at this company, outlines this complex process of change, and the technologies that ACCIONA is implementing in all its production processes in the water industry.

Question: The fourth industrial revolution is here. How is it affecting the water sector, and in which areas is it more present?

Answer: The fourth industrial revolution is here to stay. But what is industry 4.0?

We could define it as the digitalisation of an industrial physical environment, from the concept and design, to operation and exploitation. Its purpose is to offer tools that will enable optimising industrial processes through the use of IT (information technologies) in OT environments (operational technologies, that is, industrial production processes).

The main inputs used in the water sector are electric power (to power the processes), water itself (the raw material), and chemical reagents. Process optimisation is a must to increase productivity and decrease the environmental impact, reducing the consumption of energy and chemical reagents, while we comply with the quality requirements for the final product, established by current legislation or by private contracts, where non-compliance leads to financial penalties.

The fourth industrial revolution can transform our business, affecting mainly the amount of energy and reagents used, and compliance of the final product with quality parameters.

Q: How does this new wave of digitalisation fit with ACCIONA's water business?

A: ACCIONA is constantly reinventing itself, focusing on innovation and new ideas, with the main goal of designing a sustainable future. The application of these ideas to the operation of desalination processes has already positioned ACCIONA as a world leader in the sector.

Starting almost two years ago, the company has undertaken an innovation project to integrate IT in the water cycle, through remote monitoring of processes and their environment, putting in context and processing the information collected, and applying the conclusions obtained from the observation of data from the production process.

Q: ACCIONA is committed to the application of disruptive technologies to integrated water cycle management. Which are the most significant ones?

A: The integration of IT with the OT processes already is, in itself, a revolution. It was unthinkable a few years ago, but nowadays we start to feel it as a natural union that provides competitive advantages.

ACCIONA promotes collaboration between the real and the digital worlds in the integrated water cycle: from the production process (desalination and water treatment), to distribution, and finally, to water treatment; the two first ones are now at a more advanced stage.

Predictive and artificial intelligence models have been deployed in the production process, with excellent results.

In the distribution business, we just finished the first phase of the Business Intelligence PRISMAA, with the goal of bringing together in a single platform all the software services used by water services, harmonising the presentation layer and making it independent from the field, thereby improving the management of its resources.

Starting almost two years ago, ACCIONA has undertaken an innovation project to integrate IT in the water cycle

Q: In which sectors are these technologies currently applied, and in which geographical areas?

A: As a result of the application of technologies 4.0 in the water industry, we will achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); environmental protection, energy saving, responsible resource use, and rational water use and management are all part of ACCIONA's essential commitment.

ACCIONA is present in 40 countries, and in the water sector in particular, it has a presence in the 5 continents. Currently we have started to deploy industry 4.0 solutions in Spain, Canada and Algeria, and at the end of this year, we plan to add Qatar, Peru and the United States to that list. We will gradually implement the CECOA in each of the plants we operate, thereby meeting the digital transformation needs of our business.

Q: How do you think IoT is affecting water management, and how is it integrated in ACCIONA's projects in the sector?

A: The IoT (Internet of Things) has been defined as a direct Internet connection from any device, to enable, for example, not only turning on the light in the living room, but also program timings or create different lighting scenarios, among other possibilities.

In industry we call these devices IIot (Industrial Internet of Things), to set a difference that warns about the need to comply with minimum quality and availability requirements. Their use in the water sector is very beneficial, mainly in water distribution systems, where the facilities to be monitored are scattered over a large geographical area, so implementing control systems is difficult and costly. IIoT devices and their capacity to transmit information from any location facilitate de deployment of remote-control systems. Advances in energy harvesting reduce the maintenance cost of instruments since they eliminate battery maintenance.

The imminent roll-out of the 5G network will provide higher speed and lower battery consumption, as well as the standardisation of communications, something which will translate into intensive IoT instrument use in our sector.

Q: What are the pros and cons of AI when it comes to the operations involved in water management?

A: Leak detection is our main weapon to prevent involuntary water losses in water management. We need to use tools to optimise management, and AI is starting to emerge as an effective tool for smart water management. Projects such as BI PRISMAA implement the combined use of IIoT devices, data in the cloud and application of algorithms, to enable the early detection of hidden leaks, with an accuracy of more than 90%.

In the production sector, ACCIONA uses AI to predict algal blooms, natural phenomena that affect desalination plants, causing blockages and fouling that could lead to unplanned downtime, with the subsequent loss of service to customers. Predicting these events is very valuable, because you can anticipate them and take any measures necessary to avoid unplanned downtime. Our algorithms are anticipating algal blooms more than 3 days before they occur, through a combination of satellite images, meteorological information and mathematical models.

But, what are the drawbacks of using them?

First, they are costly to create, because using AI solutions means using high cost resources: the cloud, very powerful servers, highly qualified staff and the complexity of these projects result in a high cost. And the return on that investment is not guaranteed.

These projects require the involvement of a lot of company staff, from different backgrounds and departments, increasing their work load.

Finally, after these solutions are deployed and once they have been proven effective, you could have a false sense of security. Smart systems have to be supervised regularly to prevent deviations that could result in false conclusions; that could lead to the same situations we are trying to avoid.

Predictive and artificial intelligence models have been deployed in the production process, with excellent results

Q: The company has implemented the CECOA. What were the reasons to create it, and what is its purpose?

A: For ACCIONA, innovation is the main driver for development, and key to growth. The CECOA is born out of this philosophy, as an innovation project to offer a tool that improves the efficiency of water processes. We identified three main pillars that define the system: 

  • Plant connectivity. 
  • Information collection and processing. 
  • Presentation of aggregated information, in order to show areas for improvement in the monitored facilities. 

The CECOA is a homogeneous platform to connect the plants, independent from the specificities of their control systems, that allows access to data with a standard and homogeneous structure. Developed from a flexible hardware and software base, it can be scaled from the initial foundation until all ACCIONA's facilities are integrated. 

The CECOA is a homogeneous platform to connect the plants that allows access to data with a standard structure

Q: What are the main activities and projects carried out in it?

  • Information collection and processing. The CECOA provides supervision functions, SCADA, and integrates production processes with the company's business solutions. Based on standards to constantly improve operations, it facilitates decision making in real time. The collection and storage nodes receive the information, store it and allow access for processing and analysis, using a standard query language, with a simple and open data interface.
  • Information presentation: presenting the information collected from the plants lets the user know about deviations or points needing improvement. The application is displayed in four screens that show the information related to the context selected (summary of main KPIs, process synopsis and historical information); you can browse the real geographical location of different sites using a GIS map.
  • Pre-production platform: thanks to the remote connectivity of the plants with the CECOA system, ACCIONA can test AI application prototypes without directly interfering with processes, providing a safe, zero-risk pre-production environment. It is an ideal test bench to try mathematical models and prediction algorithms without interfering with production.

Q: The company is also working on cybersecurity. What are the applications in the water sector, and how are they being used at ACCIONA?

A: The water sector has been identified in the legislation on Critical Infrastructure Protection (Spanish Law 8/2011), so we are required to apply cybersecurity measures in our company's facilities. Besides, a potential denial-of service affecting the water supply, or water quality alterations due to a cyberattack are key issues to be aware of the importance of protecting the facilities. Up to now, the energy sector was the most affected one by cyberattacks. However, during 2018 the water sector has moved up the list of most affected sectors to rank fourth. The number of cybersecurity incidents in the industrial sector has been steadily increasing over the past few years. The vulnerability of IoT devices, as well as limited or no software updates, have been used by attackers to generate denial-of-service attacks (DoS attacks).

With regard to cybersecurity, ACCIONA, within the framework of its General Security Plans, is coordinating the efforts of its different divisions to jointly implement security measures that ensure the integrity of infrastructure and data.

All users receive training on information security, all software used has been updated, and information is stored in the cloud to ensure availability and confidentiality. At the OT level, we are installing industrial cybersecurity devices to ensure maximum protection from the attacks our industry is exposed to.

Q: Finally, how do you think these tools could change the water sector in the coming years?

A: Our sector is a key one for the future of our society. The foreseeable resource scarcity entails a responsibility for us: providing drinking water wherever it is needed. Optimising production processes, efficient management of distribution, and improvements to water treatment and reuse are key factors to achieve this objective.

The evolution towards industry 4.0 is taking off, driven by the benefits of applying the new technologies that make it possible, as well as the improvements in them: the cloud, connectivity, big data, artificial intelligence, etc. They are now applied across different industries, and the water sector is starting to see the advantages they offer.

The good results we are obtaining with the application of industry 4.0 technologies show that in the water sector these innovations optimise processes and help increase efficiency. All of this will convince us that the evolution of our sector towards digitalisation is inevitable.

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