Phil Beecher, president and CEO of Wi-SUN Alliance, discusses findings from the group’s recent ‘Journey to IoT Maturity’ report and which drivers can help utility firms harness the potential of IoT.

If a week is a long time in politics, five years is an eternity in technology.

That’s why Wi-SUN – a non-profit member organisation driving interoperable wireless solutions for smart cities and grids – recently commissioned Vanson Bourne to rerun a study we first published in 2017 to gauge the progress of IoT initiatives in the US and UK.

The good news is that more smart utilities projects than ever are being fully implemented today –almost 70% of companies have implemented smart city initiatives, up from 42% in 2017, while half of all companies with smart utility strategies have delivered, up from 38% five years ago. At the same time, there’s evidence that the scale and ambition of such projects is also growing.

But will this vaulting ambition be realised? The devil, as always, is in the detail.

Utilities’ IT leaders keen to minimise costs and maximise opportunities to drive efficiencies, innovation and collaboration, should look first to the infrastructure underpinning their IoT.

Staying competitive 

At the heart of the IoT value proposition for utilities are some very simple ideas. Providers want to reduce waste, improve the efficiency of delivery networks and drive enhanced customer experiences. They are also keen to do so in as cost-effective a manner as possible.

At the same time, utilities firms are increasingly concerned about macro trends like climate change and extreme weather events, energy security and cyber threats to critical infrastructure.

IoT technology, in the form of edge computing devices, provides the intelligent monitoring and granular control providers need to respond to these trends with greater agility. It supports smart meter rollouts, improved fault and leak detection, remote management, and much more.

Some 92% of overall respondents that we polled agree that they must invest in the technology over the next 12 months to stay competitive.

But arguably the most important part of any project is choosing the underlying network communications infrastructure. Get this right, and providers can open the door to exciting new innovations and collaborative opportunities.

Start with mesh 

We found that mesh network topologies – providing connectivity between different devices on the same network without routing through a central point – are increasingly favoured among IT decision makers.

The number exclusively using star networks – featuring a central connection point – dropped dramatically from 21% in 2017 to 12% today, while those using hybrid networks, combining mesh and star, rose from 58% to 68%.

In a field area network (FAN) designed for large-scale outdoor connectivity, mesh networks offer several advantages for utilities companies.

Mesh networks enable advanced metering infrastructure applications such as outage management, through distributed edge computing devices including smart meters and fault monitoring sensors. Issues on the energy distribution network can be detected and faults isolated, improving the customer experience and accelerating mean time-to-repair.

Sensors could also be mounted to overhead lines to sense and even predict when an outage might occur – particularly useful as the UK experiences more extreme high winds and other weather events.

Self-healing mesh networks enable data to be re-routed around a failed node for enhanced resilience. Transmissions are usually made over shorter distances, which can improve performance and power efficiency.

Mesh-based FANs and the edge computing IoT devices they support could be used to deliver initiatives to reduce energy wastage. They can be used to provide the real-time visibility and control that grid operators need to ensure steady energy supply, even as unpredictable renewables comprise a greater chunk of production.

Open standards and collaboration 

Open standards are another critical enabler of innovation and collaboration. In fact, when it comes to smart utilities, we found the number of IT leaders who believe open standards are either “very important” or “absolutely crucial” rose from 79% in 2017 to 84% this year. Why? Because networks built with open standards can be relied upon as secure, robust and cost-effective.

Security is particularly important in the context of mounting threats to critical infrastructure.

With open standards, stakeholders are able to accelerate time-to-market and reduce development costs, and benefit from a wider choice of vendors. Crucially, cross-industry collaboration also becomes easier.

Consider opportunities for projects developed jointly by energy and water utilities, or in collaboration with local authorities. A FAN can be rolled out via smart streetlighting, creating a canopy network from which to hang leaf nodes capable of operating in low-power mode. These could be sensors in water pipes, smart meters, or pole-tilt sensors, for example.

Aside from urban environments, open standards-based FANs can unlock collaborative opportunities in desalination infrastructure, hydroelectric power plants and other locations – enabling utilities to share upfront CapEx costs without compromising on the choice of vendors and devices.

There’s near-limitless potential in IoT to drive value for utilities providers. Those able to harness this potential via secure, resilient and open standards-based networks will lead the pack in the post-pandemic era.

  • Wi-SUN Alliance’s The Journey to IoT Maturity report can be downloaded here

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