Transforming leak detection using AI, thermal data and Sensat

Water is vital for our existence, not just for human life but for the environment and ecosystem on which we depend. Today, the growing population means the UK water industry is faced with extreme water challenges such as water scarcity and quality, with water leakage and improving resilience of systems being central to this.

Many water companies are only at the beginning of their journey when it comes to investing in technology to identify leaks in the network quickly and efficiently so that they can be fixed. Sensat, alongside United Utilities, is working on a new solution to leak detection utilising UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and AI algorithms in Sensat’s platform.

Water Leakage and Non-Revenue Water (NRW)

It is estimated that 2,954 million litres of water are leaked each day in the UK—the equivalent to 1,182 Olympic swimming pools. Gradual pipe corrosion, damage by freezing weather, ground movement, such as natural shifts in building foundations, can all damage or put a serious strain on pipework resulting in water leakage from the network. As a result of the water loss, utility companies have to treat and add more water into their distribution networks in order to meet the demand of the UK. 

Evidently, reducing leakage is a huge issue the water industry faces, and minimising water loss through leakage forms part of OFWAT’s outcome delivery incentives (ODIs), where they have challenged the industry to deliver reductions in leakage by up to 15% between 2020 and 2025. In order to achieve this, OFWAT is expecting utility companies to adopt innovative approaches led by technology to help plug the gap.

Leaking pipe

Leak detection today

The location of leaks poses one of the biggest challenges for the industry today. Leaks can go undetected for weeks and months without being found, especially when leaks are minimal and not causing any noticeable change in water volumes or visible damage which can be reported.

Today, teams are identifying leak detection using a mixture of manual methods of assessment including using trained dogs to sniff out potential areas of leaks, water diving, as well as slightly more advanced solutions such as acoustic leak detection. However, all of these methods are extremely manual and time-consuming processes that are used to maintain the 416,175 kms of water mains supplying the UK. Amongst the industry, we need to find and adopt more efficient and more accurate leak detection.

The future of leak detection: Sensat’s pilot leak detection study with United Utilities

The water industry currently has little to no automated methods of detecting leakage from the water network, however over the past few months, Sensat has been working towards game-changing technology alongside United Utilities. Utilising unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology to remotely map thermal data, combined with high-resolution photogrammetry, Sensat has partnered with the water company to develop a probability-based algorithm that assesses vegetation stress, terrain relief and thermal scans to predict where leaks might be along trunk mains in rural areas. Our visualisation platform identifies leaks through geospatial mapping and is removing the need for manual inspections to significantly reduce the time and cost of detecting leaks.

This new approach to identifying leak locations more efficiently over a wider survey area is enabling United Utilities to take remedial action faster and more cost-effectively. Sensat has been working closely with leak detection experts in an invaluable feedback loop, validation of results will further inform the models, meaning the algorithms will improve their accuracy over time at predicting the leaks, providing further efficiencies in the future. The successful completion of this trial will open up the exploration of further use cases for data beyond leak detection to help deliver the appropriate level of resilience that the water network needs for the long term (read the full press release here).

Looking one step further into the future of leak detection, Sensat’s Common Visualisation EnvironmentⓇ (CVE) combined with AI and Machine Learning will be invaluable. By analysing already available data, for example, the age of the pipes, location, local temperature and any information on why previous leaks happened, alongside newly captured insight, United Utilities will be able to continue to make the process of leak detection more efficient. Eventually, from one control panel, teams will be able to monitor water systems and their interaction with the external environment without the need for boots on the ground manual inspection.

A common challenge that the water industry faces is that often teams do not know the precise location of where many of their assets are buried underground, and at the moment placing boots on the ground is the primary solution to find them. However, by using a digital twin of the water infrastructure that includes mains layouts, teams can minimise unnecessary groundworks to locate underground pipes, and prevent clashes that cause reworks. For example, from day one a development site can include sewage main layouts alongside foundation plans, design models and other underground mains in order to understand the below-ground infrastructure which avoids future clashes, so the right first time decisions can be made with full visibility of the past, present and future plans of an area.

At Sensat we believe that bringing multiple data sets together, using a CVE is central to minimising leaks. A CVE unlocks the dimension of reality so that if you are out on-site using Sensat to cross-reference the location of pipes with suggested areas of leaks using Sensat’s leak detection algorithm, teams can see if the data corresponds with what is thought to be there before they start digging.

Minimising leaks and the road to net zero

With COP26 having recently passed, and reducing carbon and becoming net zero being top of mind, leak detection will play a huge part in achieving this goal. English water companies have set ambitious targets, committing to reaching the net zero goal by 2030 two decades ahead of the UK target which requires a multifaceted approach in order to get there.

For the water industry, utilising technology to save water will be one way to minimise the carbon footprint of water. At Sensat we believe the potential of our leak detection algorithm and CVE will play a significant part in aiding the water industry’s road to net zero. A digital site replica visualised alongside mains data, will allow teams to visually assess sites and ‘see’ even more information than you would be able to on-site. This comes with several carbon saving benefits including minimising trips to site and sometimes difficult to access areas, but additionally improves health and safety records by minimising boots on the ground.

To learn how Sensat can help your team identify leak detection, get in touch with water experts.

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