Image above: A composite visualization of a wastewater treatment plant in Taunton in southwest England, taken from the BIM model created by WSP
One of the biggest challenges for anyone working with water is that it is often out of sight underground, whether in a natural aquifer or a city’s supply network. Now, though, new ways of collecting and combining information promise to shed light on what’s really going on.
“Better use of data can help make the invisible visible,” explains Anna Dahlman Petri, a senior water consultant at WSP in Stockholm. A lack of useable information often means utility companies are in the dark when it comes to understanding their own networks, she says, creating a variety of problems including — notoriously — the vexed issue of leaking pipes and why water utilities do not fix more of them.
“Fixing leaks is difficult and expensive, not least because you might not know exactly where the leak is. And then if you do find it and fix it, the resulting pressure change can often cause another leak to spring up somewhere else in the system.” If a repair is not handled intelligently, says Dahlman Petri, the interruptions to supply, and the cost and inconvenience of digging up roads, simply repeat themselves in an expensive game of whack-a-mole.
To remedy this, WSP is helping water companies create “digital twins”: computer models of a supply network that integrate data such as water levels, pipe capacities and water pressures. Water companies already collect data, but this is often done manually, and it is stored separately and used for disparate purposes. “Some are already overwhelmed with more data than they know how to use,” says Dahlman Petri. “So we are asked to help them establish the level of detail they need, and how to combine data usefully. A digital twin can help them do that.”