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Water takes the lead in the new space race

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From ensuring safety in growing urban communities, right down to pinpointing leaks and monitoring water quality, the applications and potential for Earth Observation Science (EOS) solutions in the water market have grown in new and unexpected ways. Today, space science affects every drop of water. 

When Sputnik 1 was launched into orbit in 1957, the profound impacts the space race would have on the people of Earth had been scarcely dreamed of even in science fiction. Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, did little more than broadcast a radio beep as it flew over the surface, but just a few years later, in 1960, TIROS-1 was transmitting television pictures of global weather patterns. The age of Earth Observation Science (EOS) had begun.

Today, more than six decades after TIROS blasted into space, Earth Observation Science is firmly established. While initially driven by military ambitions and the conflict between east and west, space science has evolved into something far beyond a geopolitical bargaining chip. Since those early days, satellites have given us nearly instant worldwide communications, the global positioning system and advanced weather forecasting. But fresh applications and approaches continue to emerge, and Earth Observation Science is enhancing life for the people of Earth in new and novel ways that are just as breathtaking as Sputnik was in the 1950s.

X-head: Managing Earth’s water from space

One area that satellites are changing our lives is how we understand and manage the Earth's natural resources, such as its water. This is already a big business and is an area that is anticipating significant growth. EOS solutions in the water sector are expected to create a global market worth around $2 billion over the next five years, for example.

Driven by factors such as climate change, urbanisation, ageing infrastructure, growing populations, and the need to manage precious resources such as freshwater more carefully, digital innovations and emerging sources of data are seeing investment pouring into the sector. Subsequent innovations are producing new kinds of information that are in turn influencing our understanding of water resources, as well as their use and management.

EOS solutions in the water sector are expected to create a global market worth around US$2 billion over the next five years

By its nature, water management is extremely complex. For instance, water quality is influenced by any number of anthropogenic and naturally-occurring factors such as land management, industrial activity, the availability of sanitation and underlying geology. By increasing the quality and consistency of the available data, EOS is able to deliver high-frequency actionable information that can support governments as well as public and private-sector organisations concerned with the delivery of water services.

  • One area that satellites are changing our lives is how we understand and manage the Earth's natural resources, such as its water
  • Water losses are a major issue in any distribution system, but in some countries, the scale of the losses reaches another level

At one end of the scale, for example, the Technical University of Munich recently used data from the CryoSat-2 satellite Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) to map water levels across the entire Lower Mekong River Basin in South-East Asia and covering even the smaller tributaries. Similarly, the World Resources Institute has developed a suite of Aqueduct tools that includes a water risk atlas that maps and analyses current and future water risks and is based on NASA satellite data and analysis from the Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center (GES DISC).

From these broad-brush approaches mapping the water quantities in reservoirs and rivers or the water quality in a catchment, at the other end of the scale, space-based observations combined with advanced analytics are able to detect the slightest displacement in water infrastructures such as dams, embankments and pipelines. Accurately assessing infrastructure using EOS can pinpoint leaks and potential failures, and, as a result, remote sensing tools such as EOS have a daily impact on how we use store and transport our water.

X-head: Getting down on the ground with Earth Observation

One company that has emerged to take advantage of EOS in the water sector is UK-headquartered Rezatec. The company uses radar data from the SAR aboard the Sentinel 1 satellites as well as optical observations from Sentinel 2 satellites. This geospatial data is used to detect terrain motion and changes in the growth patterns of vegetation and is coupled with a sophisticated machine learning algorithm to support municipals and utilities in their management of water and water risks.

Water losses are a major issue in any distribution system, but in some countries and regions, the scale of the losses reaches another level. In Italy, for example, some 40 per cent of all the treated drinking water that is produced is simply lost. The scale of these losses represents a high cost to the consumer who ultimately pays for this lost water. Estimated at around EUR billion annually in Italy alone, losing treated water also has an environmental impact in terms of the carbon footprint but also economic impacts caused, for instance, by disruption to the transport system during pipeline failures and their subsequent repair.

Hunter relies on EOS to assess changes every 10-12 days as the satellite passes over, rather than on a more typical annual basis

Rezatec has a Pipeline Risk tool that combines satellite data with artificial intelligence techniques to produce risk assessments. These assess a broad range of parameters and historical data to predict where pipeline failures are likely to occur in the future. Armed with data showing the Likelihood of Failure (LOF) as well as the costs associated with such a failure, utilities are able to target budgets on the top 10 or 20 per cent of pipelines with the highest risk of failure.

Italian multi-utility HERA S.p.A manages more than 35,000 km of water distribution network as well as 400 water treatment plants and has deployed the Pipeline Risk tool in a bid to reduce the level of its losses. "We discovered that there are interesting factors: not just the diameter of the material of our pipelines but other factors like soil and the temperature had an influence too. We found we also had a correlation with other factors, for example, the salinity of the soil is a variable that must be considered. There is also the groundwater level that is different in the different areas of our region," explains Maurizia Brunetti, Water Supply Technical Coordination Manager at HERA.

“Rezatec were the first provider to propose a predictive solution that considered not only the diameter, the historical data series about breakages or the age of our pipelines, but also the groundwater level, the kind of soil, and the temperature. It was an algorithm which considers all of these factors and was more integrated than the data we considered previously,” Brunetti adds.

The predictive assessment began with a retrospective analysis of three-year’s-worth of data, including pipeline attributes, satellite-derived ground motion, vegetation data and soil data. The model at the heart of the solution is trained on historical failure data to identify the sections of pipe that have the highest likelihood of failure. Using data about the network and surrounding infrastructure, the solution also identifies pipes that could cause the greatest amount of cost and inconvenience, which is expressed as a consequence of the failure metric. Together these metrics help predict areas of concern and allow Hera to prioritise its pipeline replacement investment.

Acquedotto del Fiora SpA (AdF) is another Italian water company that turned to the EOS approach to manage losses. “Our network is large but with low customer numbers, so it is a challenge to quickly find water losses. Therefore, we want intelligence to help us find water losses quickly and decrease the time needed to fix those failures,” explains Alessio Giunti, Head of Water Balance and Metering Equipment, Water Resource Protection at AdF. “Implementing innovative technology, such as Pipeline Risk, is something that can help us improve our performance and enable us to reach our goals.”

With SAR data able to detect displacements of just a few millimetres, geospatial data can also be deployed in the management of other types of water system assets, such as dams and embankments. Intelligent analysis of satellite data can pick up on the changing vegetation indicative of seepage or the slightest bulge or sag of the crest that can be suggestive of a structural problem needing further investigation.

X-head: Allocating scarce resources in Australia

Australia’s Hunter Water owns and operates the Grahamstown Dam in NSW. With a reservoir of some 182,305 million litres, it is the company's largest drinking water supply dam and provides about 40 per cent of water to the region. With a five km-long embankment featuring a solid clay core but sand shoulders, as a structure, it is challenging for engineers to assess manually and therefore effectively manage any potential failure risk.

“Dams are very large assets, and very high or extreme consequences result if they are to fail. You're doing your best to monitor all the key points, but it is very hard to have absolute coverage of a dam,” explains Daniel Turnbull, Dam Safety Engineer at Hunter. “It's not physically practical to monitor every aspect of the dam. That's one of the big challenges we face, making sure that our monitoring is targeted and effective,” he adds.

Since the earliest days of the space race, breakthroughs in space science have led to new ways of seeing and understanding our world

Having deployed a structural and environmental dam monitoring service from Rezatec, Hunter now relies on EOS to assess changes every 10-12 days as the satellite passes over, rather than on a more typical annual basis. This enables them to allocate scarce resources where they are needed most and reduce the risk to the public.

As Turnbull says: “I liked the thought of an early warning system, so the satellite monitoring was perfect given we can start to see changes over that much shorter frequency. Satellite monitoring, just because of the coverage it provides, also gives us a more holistic view of what's happening with the dam.”

Since the earliest days of the space race, breakthroughs in space science have led to new ways of seeing and understanding our world. That trend continues to this day, with space-based observations helping to develop new ways of working, improving both environmental and economic performance and even helping to keep communities safe. Reaching out into space adds another important dimension to the toolbox for water management.