IoT Facilitates Enhancements to Water Management Systems

Patrick Stephens, CIO, Rain for Rent
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Work in IT long enough, and you'll know that when people talk about “the next big thing,” they’re never thinking big enough, or small enough. Over the last 30 years, every successful wave of innovation has been based on what already exists. From cell phones and computers, to the Internet itself, all successful technologies have been rapid, and incremental, expansions of existing small ideas into world spanning technology platforms. There are amazing things you can do with your network if you can feed information back into your processes, measure it and leverage the data to remotely monitor and respond to situations quickly. Even though Rain for Rent is an 80 year old brick and mortar company, we believe that the only way to stay relevant today is to continuously improve and prudently adopt new technology as it becomes available.

Our latest "next big thing" has been focused on machine-to-machine communication (M2M): devices talking to like devices. Machines are things that perform actions for us, and we'd like for them to be a bit more self-directed, or "smart". What makes machines “smart,” are the sensors, the small things that make all of this possible by measuring, evaluating, and transmitting data. The Internet of Things (IoT) really comes together with the connection of those sensors and a "brain" to the machines that perform work.  Historically, that brain has been a human one, looking at water levels, temperatures, weather, etc.

By instrumenting our world, we can measure and control that world. Sensors have existed for millennia, from the most basic, "look the river is rising" idea to smart home technology that can tell your sprinklers to turn off if it's raining. What the IoT enables is extending these sensors to all aspects of our lives, and then giving these sensors parameters that allow them to control the world for us via a computer.

  â€‹What the IoT enables is extending sensors to all aspects of our lives, and then giving these sensors parameters that allow them to control the world for us via a computer  

Currently, we have a very large water and power project out in the desert and all of our field tanks have remote monitoring capabilities that save the customer a significant amount of time, but with more network connectively comes more potential for intrusion. As we deploy our technologies to customers, we have also implemented multiple layers of protection.

Let’s look at an example. The water source for the City of Rome, NY was at risk because of a disintegrating concrete pipeline. In order to repair the pipeline, the contractor needed a bypass system with the pipeline traversing seven miles of densely wooded hills with significant elevation changes.

Rain for Rent provided a system that handled the flow easily during the repair and our IoT strategy enabled us to run the complex, seven mile long system, virtually unmanned. Typically a job of this size would require almost hourly monitoring and many human touches. We were able to pass the cost savings on to the customer and ensure the water flowed to the town, while minimizing the environmental impact. The customer saved the cost of eight full time employees on the job, but was alsoreassured that the system was bullet proof from both a reliability, and security point of view.  We accomplished this by hardwiring the sensor arrays, and using our standard defense in-depth methodology which involves isolating the system from all potential attackers.

Our equipment fleet is composed of very large, somewhat portable, assets. Given that our standard operating environment can vary from the scorching desert to extreme industrial environments, it's challenging to instrument everything. Actually attaching our IoT sensor arrays presents a challenge. In some cases, they can be hard wired, but in many cases, innovative enclosures and connectors have to be created to attach to our tanks, pumps, and pipes.

Let’s look at another example. One of our large customers operates a refinery in the southeastUnited States.For a refinery, time is money and each day they produce fuels and feedstocks for industrial applications. Refineries also have to shutdown operations to clean up, and get ready for another cycle of operations-knownas turn arounds. One of the most important considerations during a turn-aroundis safety, environmental cleanliness, and of course, time.  These turn arounds involve safely managing hundreds of tons of waste product, and responsibly managing that product from start to final disposition.

Rain for Rent provides boxes, and box management technology that allowed the customer to leverage our IoT strategy. These boxes are about the size of a shipping container and are generally moved by large forklifts, taking a fair amount of abuse as they are loaded and unloaded.  For our IoT strategy to work, our engineers had to figure out a way to attach the GPS/sensors to the boxes in an enclosure that could resist a direct blow from the forks on an industrial forklift.

Our IoT technology enables geo-fences to be establishedaround specific work areas totrack box contents, box movement, and time on rent. Obviously this information is highly sensitive and extremely auditable.  We were able to assist the customer in managing their turn arounds, shaving days off, increasing the safety and visibility of the waste products, while saving them hundreds of man hours of time. Itis critically important to all parties to provide a level of security and visibility into waste tracking that had previously taken months to accomplish.

As we look to the past for an indication of how adoption of IoT will be, we’re reminded at just how rapid Digital Revolution changes have been. Consider the rate of adoption of simple cell phones and Internet usage over 20 years. In 1990, cell phone subscribers made up just 0.25percent of the world population, but increased to 68 percent in 2010. Additionally, just 0.05 percent of the world population was using the internet in 1990, but in 2010 that utilization increased to 26.6 percent.

When evaluating any new opportunity, I like to ask myself, “What advice would I give my current self, if I could look back at today from 10 years in the future?”  I believe that IoT is going to encompass every aspect of our lives by 2020, and we need to be prudent, secure, as well as aggressive in its implementation.  This latest “big thing” represents a vast opportunity for all of us.  Similar to all of the other the rapid changes that have characterized this Digital Revolution from the 1970’s until today, the changes will be both incremental and profound.  

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