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Communicating with infrastructure in the connected age

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Former Client Relationship Director, Colin Dominish writes about the shift from the age of Information, to the Connected Age, where infrastructure will converse with itself and humans in ways that transform the built environment.

Colin looks into some of the trends defining the Connected Age, underlying technologies supporting the shift, and how Aurecon is already helping implement the solutions of the future for clients in many countries around the globe.

Shifting towards connectivity

The world is rapidly shifting to a paradigm of being totally connected. The Information Age is fast becoming the Connected Age, where that information is being used to inform and communicate on how all things interrelate. It is becoming the age of Big Data, Machine to Machine (M2M) communications, and the Internet of Things. The trends are already well documented, and the statistics around them are mind boggling. According to research undertaken by Ericsson in their 2013 Mobility Report, mobile data traffic will grow by 12 times between 2012 and 2018 globally. There are currently some 4 billion devices already connected around the world. This is forecast to grow to over 50 billion by 2030. By 2020 it is estimated M2M connections will account for 45% of the world’s connected devices. This article touches upon some of the trends emerging in response to the shift that is occurring. The enabling technologies helping to connect infrastructure are highlighted. And certain roles Aurecon is already undertaking to support the shift for our clients are showcased.

What is driving connectivity?

The most basic trend is the growth in data. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), at the end of 2013 there were:

  • 6.8 billion mobile cellular subscriptions – almost as many as there are people on the planet
  • An estimated 2.7 billion people using the Internet worldwide. In other words, there are still 4.4 billion people who are not yet online
  • Mobile broadband growth of around 40 per cent annually on average
  • Growth in household access to the Internet to over 40 per cent globally. As a comparison, this figure corresponds to about half the proportion of households worldwide that have a TV

The growth in data can best be explained by the growth in applications being used “over the network” (OTT). With smartphones to reach 1.6 billion by the end of 2013 and 3.1 billion by 2017, the number of smartphone users using OTT communication services will be 925.5 million this year, and 2.1 billion by the end of 2017. People are generating data over mobile applications for all manner of reasons: for business, leisure and pleasure; personal efficiency; social interaction; and security and safety. Mobility, and the advent of cloud services, is allowing people to take what used to be desk bound activities and travel out into the field. Innovation, collaboration and new business models are unlocking the value of telecommunications networks to create entirely new ways of doing business in the online world. And as these networks become even higher performing (in terms of speed and price effectiveness) they are allowing more data to be sent at faster rates for cheaper cost. This article looks at how these trends are materialising in technologies being used by clients around the world to manage their infrastructure assets.

Enabling technologies

Driving the growth in data has been extraordinary leaps forward in the underpinning technologies that manage the infrastructure of today, and the applications that sit atop them. When it comes to infrastructure related communications, some examples of uses for the most impressive technologies are:

  • “Smart Grid” and advanced metering implementation and management, and
  • Asset monitoring and assessment applications using Graphical Information Systems

Let’s take a look at these areas in more detail.

City gridSmart Grids

A case in point is how next-generation Smart Grid M2M systems are now allowing water and electricity utilities across the globe the flexibility to choose meters and mobile network operators while ensuring a secure and scalable smart meter solution. The meter systems being developed include a number of new innovations. These include being:

  • Full-featured for utility metering processes such as meter reading, connect/disconnect, time of use tariffs, and data privacy
  • Developed for future enhancement such as pre-pay, debt recovery, meter disablement and enablement
  • Meter agnostic, with built-in support for DLMS/COSEM and ANSI standards-based meters
  • Optimised for use of mobile networks
  • Designed for autonomous data push for scheduled activities
  • Engineered to reduce network congestion
  • Built to work in the constrained environment of legacy IPv4 networks, and to exploit the benefits of new IPv6 networks
  • Supportive of customisable roaming rules
  • Compatible with 2G, 3G, and 4G networks

Today’s smart meters offer a fully integrated connectivity experience, from commissioning of smart meters to downloading of energy tariffs and requests for meter data.

And similar smarts are now being built into the replacement technologies for asset monitoring and assessment technologies, slowly building a path beyond the traditional SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) industrial control systems. Emerging models of distributed control nodes offer benefits such as:

  • Multi-protocol, multi-application platform designs
  • Increased computing power and flexibility, establishing a more intelligent communication infrastructure between grid devices and the utility head-end through a variety of wireless and fixed connectivity options
  • Powerful, extensible and easy-to-install data concentrator and applications processors
  • Support for the latest security and networking features
  • Drivers and distributed applications that allow utilities to quickly and reliably adapt to changing requirements, integrate new technologies and progress toward their grid modernisation goals

These asset management technologies are helping utilities around the world to accelerate and simplify their grid modernisation and optimisation programs.

Focussing on the future

The powerful story these trends and technologies allude to is one of rapidly increasing, interrelated, complexity and scale of communications across infrastructure assets. This creates some massive challenges as infrastructure owners and operators seek to take advantage of the possibilities whilst not overtly complicating the management of their assets. As the Connected Age dawns, Aurecon is positioning to be one of the leaders in linking infrastructure assets with technology in ways that help optimise the delivery of smarter service provision.

Designing smarter grid networks for the future is a core skill within our business. For instance, Aurecon has assisted Eskom, one of the biggest electricity utilities in the world, with the integration of the newly acquired SCADA and work management system applications across their transmission and distribution networks, utilising some of the newer features highlighted above. This encompassed the integration of these components into the current system architecture for five of the six supply areas within South Africa. The services provided on this project included business process analysis, completing a system architecture survey and defining the business event trigger and information exchange for current and future system architecture. It also included message definition for information flow between SCADA, WMS, GIS, CIS, CRM, Corporate databases and CMMS systems, in addition to data analysis in terms of quality, completeness and coverage. The services included a cutover plan from old to new systems and future system architecture design. Similar exercises have been performed in developing SCADA master plans for clients such as City Power, who manages the distribution network in Johannesburg, and the Swaziland Electricity Board.

Asset inspection toolAsset monitoring and assessment 

Monitoring the condition of infrastructure assets is also quickly benefitting from the advantages of mobile data solutions. For example, we have developed an iPad on-site infrastructure auditing tool which delivers time and cost savings for our clients in monitoring their existing assets. Data captured on-site feeds directly into construction documentation, leading to significant time and cost savings in the build phase of upgrading these assets. The audit application has been deployed into the field to capture site audit information, including photos and mark-ups, at a number of client sites. We have found that we are collecting all site information within the application and avoiding using paper based mark-ups. The audit information is synced back to a secure server and reviewed via a web tool. The client has a copy of this link and can review site audit information collected and respond to any issues identified. Design Construction Briefs are created from the information collected during the initial site audit and subsequent client conversations. We are currently working on an information extract tool that we can use to extract database information to be utilised in Excel standard reports. We have found that the audit tool allows us to quickly communicate with the client to obtain the required approvals to proceed with Design Construction Briefs.

We have used this application on projects such as the Port Hills geotechnical monitoring project as part of the Christchurch earthquake recovery effort, in Melbourne to monitor survey control points for CityLink, and to populate the Metro Trains Melbourne asset management system “Ellipse”. Recently we have inspected 800 drainage pits for the City of Melbourne using the application and the information gathered will be used to inform more detailed pit survey and subsequent drainage network modelling. The information will also be used to update the clients’ GIS as a value-add for the project. The application allows efficiencies as there is no re-entry of data back in the office, and data/images are available in a digital format in the cloud for immediate use and sharing between Aurecon offices, and if necessary, third parties. Tablet devices loaded with the latest GIS software give field staff access to clear and definitive mapping. Mobile edit services enable field staff to enter data in the field using predefined pick lists and forms, which can be immediately uploaded to databases, removing the need to return to the office for synchronisation. 3G communication networks provided a fast and reliable system for transferring data from servers to mobile devices and back. Field staff always have network connectivity, giving them immediate access to the latest hazard information and helping to protect their health and safety.

Aurecon is fortunate in that we sit in a position in the industry where we see the opportunity to exploit this valuable data from multiple points of view. Whether it is spatial data, climate data or SCADA data on network operations, we can use it to add value to our infrastructure detail designs, provide asset management advice or build in whole-of-life value into projects.

Combining engineering knowledge and the wealth of data flowing across our desks, we often provide management advice and future business direction to network owners.

The opportunities are enormous for greater integration between communications networks and infrastructure assets. Aurecon is continually developing our approach to matching the best technologies to the greatest potential outcomes for our clients as the Connected Age takes shape.

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