Xylem Water Solutions is an innovative water technology company that delivers solutions throughout the cycle of water. One of them is SmartBall, a free navigation inspection tool that is used to help pipeline maintenance managers better manage their facilities. We spoke with Pedro Pina, Advanced Infrastructure Analytics Regional Director Europe of the company, to learn more about the solution.
Question: Please tell us about SmartBall® and its applications in the water sector.
Answer: With SmartBall we can look for leaks and detect air pockets in large diameter pipes (>300 mm) made of any material.
SmartBall consists of a sponge sphere with an aluminium core that contains electronic instruments, which swims freely through pipelines, and is able to detect even the smallest of acoustic events in them. SmartBall is inserted inside the pipeline and travels with the water flow for more than 12 hours, collecting information on leaks and trapped air pockets, inspecting many kilometres of pipeline in a single run.
Non-revenue water reduction is obviously the main focus of SmartBall
Q: Why would one choose this solution over a similar one in the market?
A: Although it seems relatively simple what we do, we drop a ball in the pipe and collect it at the end, there are a lot of things that can go wrong during inspection and we are only still here because of all our successful inspections. The analysis can also be complex, we want to make sure our customer finds not only the large leaks but especially the small ones which are typically the start of large problems, and that when they dig them up, the location is as exact as possible; some of the key differentiators we offer are:
- Tracking – We do active tracking, meaning the ball is sending a signal that is tracked from the outside. This means we are able to know during inspections where the ball is located and its velocity. This translates into a number of advantages from the operational point of view. If the ball stops at some obstacle we know where and when so we can move valves, boost flow and also learn if the ball continues rolling or not. With active tracking it also means that we can handle flow speed changes during inspection, it will not affect the accuracy of the location.
- Mapping data – Accuracy on the location also depends on having an accurate map to position the leaks found during the inspection. Often the client’s GIS is not accurate or up to date; to avoid digging in the wrong place due to wrong mapping we are able to produce a map based on the Gyroscope data that SmartBall collects during inspection.
- Magnetomer data – This sensor reads the magnetic signal of the pipe. It allows us to see if a leak is in the joint or in the barrel (very important, barrel leaks most likely indicate a structural issue and should be a very high priority); it also allows us to see features like valves or pipe material changes and by correlating those with the leak location it increases our accuracy significantly.
All these features plus the extensive experience of more than 8000 km inspected in more than 15 years (including Canal Isabel II and Pamplona in Spain) provides an unmatched quality deliverable to our clients.
Q: What is the role of innovation and new technologies in water management, and what are the main challenges ahead?
A: Two of the key topics today are ageing infrastructure and non-revenue water (NRW). Water and waste water are the most capital-intensive utility services, with buried infrastructure accounting for a majority of the asset value of most utilities. Capital spending to renew or replace these assets is typically the single biggest line item in a utility’s budget. Research demonstrates that because these spending programs are based on limited information on actual condition or criticality, much of this spending is wasted on replacing assets with significant remaining useful life, resulting in little impact on the level of service.
At Xylem we provide a well proven innovative approach that uses real knowledge about the condition of the asset to focus limited financial resources on the assets that need the greatest attention and will provide the biggest return for their communities, dramatically improving the productivity of asset management spending.
Today’s approach for non-revenue water has several limitations. District Metered Areas are costly to set up and maintain, and they can cause dead ends, hydraulic disruptions, and water quality issues. Manual leak surveys are labour intensive and decrease in accuracy when applied to larger pipelines, meaning they often produce false positives or worse: they misdiagnose a failing pipe as a good pipe. The accuracy of mechanical meters decays over time, and manual reads are slow, expensive, and do not support real-time system analytics. The reason non-revenue water remains such a persistent issue is that these approaches do not add up to a systematic, cost-effective solution.
At Xylem we implement new standards of practice combining real-time continuous monitoring, targeted use of high-resolution inspection tools (such as SmartBall or Sahara), and advanced analytics to reduce real and apparent losses to economic levels. Taken together, these approaches create a comprehensive, cost-effective strategy that helps utilities gain control of leakage, with significant operational, financial, and community benefits.
Q: Out of the new technologies that are driving the evolution of the water sector, which ones does SmartBall® use and how so?
A: The core of SmartBall is acoustics; our hydrophones have been optimized and improved to be able to detect the smallest leaks (less than 1l/min have been detected and validated); also, we need to consider that a pipe presents a complex acoustic environment and we want to be sure that small leaks are not masked by other sounds, that a leak is really a leak and not something else. At the same time, we want to deliver the best result to our client in the shortest time. In order to do so we have improved our analysis process to include recent machine learning methods to fast track results and help the analysts (who still have the decisive role naming the leaks) do their job.
We want to make sure our customer finds not only the large leaks but especially the small ones
Q: In this regard, what did the launch of SmartBall® mean for the water sector?
A: Non-revenue water reduction is obviously the main focus of SmartBall, but the industry has come to trust SmartBall as a powerful tool as well for risk management of critical infrastructures. A leak is sometimes the beginning of a problem, clients like Waternet in the Netherlands look for our services to prove that their high-risk pipes have absolutely no leaks. Others like Metropolitana Milanese in Italy used the high precision of SmartBall to find areas with a concentration of very small leaks to focus their rehabilitation priorities.
Q: Finally, let us look at the future; what are the business and development expectations for this type of technology in the water sector?
A: The industry has come to realize that large diameter pipes leak way more than they expected, traditional methods are not very effective for these types of pipes and that leak detection is not only a great solution to reduce losses but also to evaluate the condition of your asset usually in combination with other methods. For those reasons we see a significant increase of demand for our services, in fact in some cases inline leak detection programs are becoming a standard we observe frequently in distribution networks.