In India, robots search through sewers to identify needed repairs. In Israel, satellite sensors roam the skies to detect drinking water leaks. And in the Republic of Congo, satellites and artificial intelligence track floods in near real time, allowing for swift remedial action.
While the use of robotics, drones, and AI in development may not be new, the water, sanitation, and hygiene — or WASH — space has seen many advances lately, according to Vanessa Speight, a professor of integrated water systems at The University of Sheffield. COVID-19 may have accelerated their implementation.
AcquahMeyer Drone Tech in Ghana previously used drones to spray crops with pesticides. But at the start of the pandemic, it repurposed them to spray disinfectant in open-air markets. In India, Fluid Robotics’ stormwater and sewer assessment robots — usually deployed to map underground networks, inspect water quality, and log pipe health — are being used to detect the presence of COVID-19 in wastewater, identifying areas where the coronavirus is more prevalent.
Amid a pandemic, the potential of this technology is clear. But before “robo-WASH” solutions are deployed at scale, sector professionals say the choice and adoption of innovations need to be considered.
Positives and pitfalls
For Speight, there are “tons” of advantages to integrating such technological solutions in the WASH space, especially for water systems. In cities, poorly constructed and ill-maintained infrastructure affects water access and quality, she said.
With technology — such as the drones monitoring algae bloom contamination of drinking water sources in South Korea or Pipebots’ microrobots that, once beyond the research phase, aim to identify pipe leakages and illegal connections — issues can be more easily identified and people deployed to fix them at a quicker rate. “The fact that they could at least find and report back about bad leaks and illegal connections would be a huge advance and would save all of us the surveying-on-the-ground time,” Speight said.
This could also help stem financial losses. According to Kenya’s Water Services Regulatory Board, the country’s water utility companies lose 52% of water due to leaks and commercial losses. Yet research indicates that utilities show a 43% in potential for automation, especially when it comes to maintenance tasks.
“It’s tempting to just run for the shiny thing without doing the quite boring thing of maintaining the pipes and making sure they’re not leaking and that sewers aren’t blocked.”
— Vanessa Speight, professor of integrated water systems, The University of Sheffield
The tremendous financial pressure on water providers as a result of the pandemic means that any and all operational efficiencies are being considered, said Joseph Kane, associate fellow at the Brookings Institution.
In India, SmartTerra is using AI to identify water losses stemming from meter malfunctions and unauthorized usage. Such technology could eliminate the need for in-person inspection, allowing staff members to limit their exposure to COVID-19. An initial pilot led to a 3% revenue increase for a city utility.
“We realize it’s essential to keep water and wastewater utilities and industries operating during a pandemic. … And you do that through smart systems,” said Kelly Trott, vice president at Imagine H2O, a nonprofit that supports innovation around water challenges.
While building new infrastructure, the implementation of AI and robotics from the outset — perhaps via smart meters and smart flow measurement and pressure control to reduce and tackle leaks in water systems — could ensure a more sustainable water supply, Speight said.
However, Kane warned that such technology may lead to a fear among workers that they could be replaced. But the narrative needn’t be about lower-skilled workers losing jobs, he said. “It’s also a story of job creation … new career pathways, new workforce development opportunities in the water sector — and other sectors — to truly harness the power of these technologies, not only to deliver a service but support our economies too,” he said.
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For example, while drones in South Korea are being used to monitor drinking water sources, people are still needed to operate them and analyze the data.
Fluid Robotics starts with a bottom-up approach showing engineers the value of the robots at the outset, according to founder and CEO Asim Bhalerao.
For hospital cleaners in particular, livelihoods could be threatened in certain circumstances, but technology might also provide an opportunity for them to take ownership if given the chance, said Hayley Schram, WASH research assistant at Global Water 2020. “I think it would be tricky for any technology to disinfect, clean, or provide service maintenance that would fully solve the problem at hand and eliminate the need for human involvement,” she said.
In fact, such technology frees up employees’ time to do more impactful tasks, said Ellie Barker, program manager at Imagine H2O.
The dangers of being dazzled by technology
Aside from staff concerns, there are other challenges in adopting drones, AI, and robotics, with the biggest being that many providers don’t have a plan for innovation adoption, Trott said. This means utilities and government providers take an ad hoc approach. As a result, the technology implemented may not always be complementary or the most cost-efficient and effective use of resources, she said.
Trott recommended that utilities and municipalities begin by looking at the issues they’re trying to solve and then think strategically.
Devex looks at how the commitments and projects around water have shifted during the pandemic.
Kane encouraged more infrastructure operators, owners, and workers to try new approaches and technologies and to get involved in pilots as a first step. He added that the sporadic implementation of technology might be insufficient for the longer-term change needed to provide access to clean water for all — an aim of Sustainable Development Goal 6.
“There’s a scaling to this, because it’s that replication that’s ultimately going to lead to a true operational change across the whole sector,” he said.
Going forward, Trott said she expects more solutions like these to enter the space. “I think we’re going to get smarter [and] we’re going to get better at it. … It’s really starting to take over the industry.”
And while jumping onto the newest gadget may be appealing, Speight warned that no technology can replace the basic maintenance and action required on a human level.
“It’s tempting to just run for the shiny thing without doing the quite boring thing of maintaining the pipes and making sure they’re not leaking and that sewers aren’t blocked,” she said. In some instances, sophisticated machines are identifying leaks but no one is fixing them, Speight added.
“The effort is a bit lost if no one is taking the action the technology is indicating. And so it’s about the fundamental need to build the capacity and resources in water utilities so they’ve got the people they need and they can take the action,” she said.
Visit the WASH Works series for more coverage on water, sanitation, and hygiene — and importantly, how WASH efforts intersect with other development challenges. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #WASHWorks.
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