Thanks to new technologies, the whole industry is undergoing a digital transformation that will likely change our life as we know it; in fact, this is already happening. The water sector is not immune to this revolution, and it has even led many aspects of it.
What we consider a 'Smart' way of working is not really something new in the water sector. Water treatment facilities, as well as water supply and sanitation networks, gradually adopted technological innovations as they emerged. The same thing happens currently, thanks to a high degree of automation and sensorization that is typical of design, construction and operation activities in this sector.
As with all revolutions, this one is not exempt from risks; digitalisation must not ignore the people these services are for, and must focus on improving products and services by contemplating aspects such as sustainable economic development, participatory natural resource management, commitment between public authorities and citizens, and anticipating changes.
Sacyr Servicios is a company committed to the Smart concept, and is transforming its services in a planned, coordinated and global manner, by different categories:
- Smart Water, to optimise the use of water as a finite natural resource, through technologies that integrate and monitor information to manage the different services.
- Smart Mobility.
- Smart People.
- Smart Energy.
- Smart Infrastructure.
Since the creation of the Water division within the Sacyr Group, adopting new technologies has always been a priority, in order to improve services and facilities. As part of the digitalisation plan, Sacyr Servicios Agua is currently implementing three key Smart projects.
The first one involves the smart design and management of concession contracts dealing with the water cycle. This type of management is based on the use of information technologies that allow optimising the entire cycle thanks to data capture: that data is then turned into knowledge used to support decision making and provide smart solutions to management challenges.
The main objectives of this activity are: obtaining information and knowledge to help users and managers reduce costs and save water, and providing a global vision of the service and its operation, to learn about consumption patterns and trends.
What we consider a 'Smart' way of working is not something new in the water sector
The solutions provided are sensorization, software and analysis of data from remote reading/telemetry systems for transport networks and facilities, including Smart Metering. This allows optimising leak control, use of GIS systems, remote management of facilities, mobility through commercial management tools, implementation of virtual offices and a public participation app for mobile phones, and control of any problems and inspections.
Concessions dealing with the water cycle currently have a new virtual office application which, on top of providing a service closer to citizens (they can control bills and consumption, manage their data, process online payments, submit complaints, do consumption simulations, receive unusual consumption warnings), includes the feature 'the citizen as a sensor': from the mobile app, they can notify and geo-reference any issues with the contract or in the city.
One of the sectors where Sacyr Agua stands out is desalination, where it is one of the six largest companies in the world. Not surprisingly, given the extraordinary complexity of desalination facilities, the use of new technologies has been a key objective for the company.
To boost digitalisation in a planned way (something that up to now happened 'naturally'), the company has developed the project 'Smart Desalination', on smart design and management of operating processes at desalination plants.
A project now in the development phase contemplates the application of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) to desalination (although it can be applied to any industrial facility). The objective is optimising the operating efficiency of facilities, with different levels of application:
- Presentations and 'virtual tours'.
- Operator training.
- Tools to improve safety.
- Review 'operability'.
- Remote technical support, through the connection of the VR module to a SCADA system and the transfer of data from it to the AR module.
Smart Sacyr Application
Another related project that is now being implemented is a remote technical support system which we have called a 'digital avatar'. This system allows providing technical support from anywhere in the world to any complex operation in a facility, having as well high resolution photograph and video recording tools. This system can be used for technical support, training, audits, inspections of facilities, etc.
A third project under development in the Smart Water programme is the smart irrigation system, a system that provides more efficient management of the network of irrigation programmers and water meters. The idea is having smart irrigation control, according to the weather and environmental conditions in each area, with centralised management in real time. Currently there are also potential applications of Big Data to achieve better predictive control of irrigation needs.
One of the first measures adopted as part of the adaptation to digital change was preparing an assessment report of current facilities and services. To do this, a questionnaire was sent to those in charge of the different facilities and services managed by Sacyr Servicios Agua, with the intention of establishing the baseline situation and see the possibilities and actions for improvement.
As a general conclusion, we can say that in water management services, the degree of sensorization and automation is very high in large systems, but it can be improved in small facilities (logically, large systems with long concession contract terms allow higher investments in technology). Moreover, for the most part they have a remote connection system, so the plant's SCADA system can be accessed from anywhere through the Internet, a laptop, a tablet, etc. In large facilities, there are 'smart services' such as telemetry, GIS systems and even SNMP monitoring.
Water treatment plants have sensors and are automated; they can be considered 'smart' facilities in themselves
In water treatment plants the extent of sensorization is quite high, particularly in desalination plants; the same thing happens with the extent of automation, with a large number of operations being controlled automatically with SCADA systems. However, advanced systems or artificial intelligence algorithms are still in a development phase or exist as pilot experiences.
We have observed that water treatment plants are usually not connected to the rest of city services, although they use sensors and are entirely automated, so they can be considered smart facilities in themselves; every step of the operation process is fully monitored and integrated.
At a different level, although with similar objectives, the Sacyr group launched recently a survey among its staff (5,000 employees of the group with a digital identity) to identify people internally with special digital and innovative talents.
The initiative, known as Da Vinci Digital, looks into the digital skills and habits of participants, as well as their willingness to innovate, with the purpose of involving the people identified in innovation/digital transformation projects.
Furthermore, last July Sacyr launched the iChallenges initiative, to collaborate with the innovation ecosystem external to the company in order to solve five business challenges, reinforcing the open innovation system of the company, and the commitment to digitalisation and new technologies.
These challenges cover some of the main areas of activity, such as Smart Cities, advanced forecasting in engineering, IoT in services, identification of wastes to promote recycling and application of VR and AR in Water.
Although we will not go into further detail in this article, the company is involved in other activities to further modernisation and digitalisation, including robotization, use of blockchain, use of drones, etc., as well as numerous R&D projects that comprise all of these technologies.
We do not know what the future may bring, but we can conclude that the water sector is a digital technology sector and will continue to be at the forefront of technology.