IBM on Friday unveiled a series of “smart water” services to deploy sensor networks and data-crunching software to help environmental officials better manage an increasingly scarce commodity.
“What we got back from people who monitor water systems is that they had a huge amount of data, that they were often entering the data by hand, and that they didn’t have time to analyze the data,” says Sharon Nunes, vice president for Big Green Innovations at IBM. “What we’re trying to to do is build more intelligence into their water systems.”
Here’s how it works in a nutshell: Sensors are scattered throughout a water district’s infrastructure – from reservoirs to the pipes that deliver H20 to homes – and gather information on water quality, leakage and other conditions. IBM (IBM) software analyzes that data and organizes it on a computer dashboard so water managers can at a glance detect problems and balance supply and demand.
A demonstration of the IBM technology and its reach is underway in Ireland’s Galway Bay. Working with Marine Institute Ireland, IBM’s SmartBay project has equipped several hundred buoys like the one in the photo above with sensors that are networked through wireless links. The sensors measure such things as water temperature, salinity and oxygen content. Nunes said some sensors measure wave height to determine the best locales for wave energy production while another experimental intelligent sensor detects phosphates and then essentially does a science experiment in a box to determine whether the data is of sufficient quality to beam back to the home base.
The project also uses fishermen as “nodes on the network,” allowing them to text-message reports of floating debris on the bay. SmartBay crunches that data and sends back a map showing the likely position of flotsam over the next 24 hours so boats can avoid collisions.
Nunes says all this data – presented on a computer dashboard – allows the Galway harbor master to get a quick snapshot of the the bay’s health and potential navigation hazards so decisions can be made quickly – like whether to close the beaches because of a spike in pollution.
She estimates the potential market for smart water technology to be between $15 billion and $20 billion. The $64,000 question, though, is whether IBM’s likely customers – cash-strapped municipalities and state and local governments – can afford to get smart.
The answer, Nunes says, is that federal stimulus package money is available for water projects while other countries like China have set aside cash – $53 billion in China’s case – for water quality projects.