Technology developed to detect humidity on Mars saves millions of liters
Europe has suffered some of its worst droughts for 500 years. Soaring temperatures this summer have resulted in increased water demand and enormous additional pressure on aging supply pipe networks.
The result was a huge increase in leaks. While a burst water main on a main road will be repaired very quickly, millions of liters of water are lost due to “invisible” leaks underground.
Asterra, a startup in Israel, has developed cutting-edge technology that identifies such leaks from radar images taken by satellites 600 km (372 miles) above Earth.
Thanks to artificial intelligence and machine learning, it is able to not only “see” water from space, but also to distinguish between drinking water, sewage and groundwater. He then alerts the water company, so they can find and repair the leak.
Asterra has developed technology in the search for groundwater on Mars and other planets. Lauren Guy, the geophysicist and entrepreneur who led the research team, quickly recognized that if it could work so far away, it could be even more effective here on Earth.
The scale of the problem here on Earth is immense. Spain loses 28% of all its tap water to leaks. In Italy, it is 37%. Malta is at 42% and Ireland at 47%.
“There’s no point in pulling raw water out of the ground, spending money treating it, and putting it into the system, only for it to come back into the ground,” said Steve Baker, of Asterra at NoCamels.
He is Country Manager for the UK, where England has just experienced its hottest summer since records began in 1884. It also recorded its highest ever temperature – 40C/104F – and, in some parts of the country the lowest summer rainfall on record.
“The more leaks we can prevent, the better it is for the environment, for water companies and for customers. That’s what we try to help them do,” he says.
Asterra is currently finding leaks day after day in all 65 countries where it operates. He says no other company has been able to overcome the practical challenges of detecting water leaks from space.
“We use satellite-mounted radar technology that allows us to penetrate the Earth’s surface,” says Baker, a licensed civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working for water companies, consultants and contractors. .
“And we developed algorithms that then look for the signature of potable (safe to drink) water mixed with soil. We’re basically looking for drinking water where it shouldn’t be – outside the pipe rather than inside the pipe.
There were two major hurdles to overcome in developing the technology. The first was to filter out all the noise from other telecommunications satellites on similar wavelengths that interfere with the signal. The second was to match images from space with the reality below.
“It’s extremely complicated because we have a round Earth, and we map it on a sheet of paper or on a flat screen. Trying to translate one to the other is a challenge,” says Baker.
Asterra, formerly known as Utilis, was founded in 2013 in Kfar Saba, central Israel, and its leak detection program launched commercially in 2016 as SaaS – software as a service – which means that users pay a subscription.
Patented radar technology sees through tarmac, concrete and ground to a depth of approximately three meters. Satellite data narrows the search area, so ground technicians are able to find and fix three times as many leaks as they would without it.
“They will go out and use techniques like X-rays to identify exactly where the leak is and then fix it,” he says.
Asterra’s technology, which is used across most of the UK, has saved 83 million liters of water every day, helping it achieve a water loss target of just 15%. Some leaks have gone undetected for years.
“Without our technology, you might know there’s a leak somewhere in there, but you don’t know where to turn on the x-ray machine that will tell you exactly where it is,” says Baker.
It’s an endless cycle. Applying a “band-aid” solves one problem, but increases pressure elsewhere, leading to further leaks.
An alternative would be to replace the entire pipe network, which would be impractical and incredibly expensive, especially in crowded cities like London. It has thousands of miles of pipes, many of which are over 100 years old, but a wholesale replacement would bring it to a screeching halt. Another would be to do nothing and watch the problem spiral out of control.
Asterra’s solution is to provide water companies with the data they need to locate hidden leaks.
Drought conditions, such as those that have plagued Europe this summer, are making matters worse, and not just because people are showering more, watering their gardens more and generally consuming more.
Lack of water actually causes more leaks. The soil moves when it dries out and moves again when it gets wet again, pushing and pulling the pipes to the breaking point. It’s like the freeze-thaw cycle in winter that also causes leaks.
Leakage technology developed by Asterra can be used to prevent disasters such as landslides and dam failures.
Cuts and fills typically used to provide a flat alignment for railway tracks can become too wet if not properly drained, leading to landslides that could derail a train or block the track with catastrophic consequences.
Asterra has adapted its technology to measure moisture content from space and warn of potential danger.
Similarly, mining companies build huge dams to hold back the “tailings” – or waste – from their excavations, but there is always a danger of them bursting. Asterra is currently working on a solution for this as well.
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