Inside Extreme Scale Tech|Wednesday, June 3, 2015
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Floodgates Open for the Industrial Internet 

So far, the story surrounding the industrial Internet has been centered around GE, and their plans to infuse their factories with thousands of sensors that will gather data throughout the manufacturing process and beyond.

But after record-breaking floods from Hurricane Sandy took their toll on New York and New Jersey, environmental and civil engineers have found a new application for the Internet-connected sensor system.

Reports of week-long power outages and flooded streets were among the top stories during the aftermath of Sandy. The devastation was significant, but with Climate Central’s recent report that 11 billion gallons of sewage flooded into waterways during the storm, it’s clear that the Sandy’s effects were much worse than once thought.

“This record storm revealed how vulnerable the sewage and wastewater treatment system is to major coastal flooding,” says Alyson Kenward, lead author of the report.

Although the threat of overflowing sewers is not new to city planners. Starting in the 1990s, major cities agreed to overhaul their sewage pipelines from “combined” sewer systems that carry waste and stormwater through a single pipe to a system that separates the two and is prepared to be taxed during storms such as Sandy.

But some municipalities sought more aggressive measures to keep sewage at bay when storms roll in, which is where the industrial Internet enters the picture. In places such as these, city planners are looking to make their existing sewage systems “smarter,” before having to resort to rebuilding the system from the ground up.

Here, a combination of sensors, real-time monitoring and the cloud are converging to help cities better manage their water levels and even divert runoff before it makes it to the sewer system.

To do this, sensors in sewage pipes, bioretention systems and rainwater harvesting tanks read water levels and uploaded to a cloud-based data management system. With the help of weather forecasts, the system is able to make decisions about when water should be stored or released to best cope with current and future weather conditions.

While time will tell what the ideal sewage system is, Philadelphia and Chicago serve as excellent illustrations of what investments are necessary for each setup, with Philadelphia looking to turn their existing system “green,” while Chicago is completely rebuilding its infrastructure to separate the sewage from the floodwater.

In the past five years, Philadelphia has looked to solutions such as rainwater capture, green roofs, extended curbs and bioswales, topped off with sensors placed in 164 locations to monitor water levels.

Over the next 25 years, the city plans to invest an additional $2 billion in green infrastructure to manage their stormwater, which Philadelphia has estimated to cost less than revamping their system by building “gray” pipes and tunnels.

On the other hand, Chicago is budgeting $3 billion over the next 15 years for such a “gray” overhaul. Key projects will include three reservoirs and 109 miles of tunnels to accommodate 17 billion gallons of floodwater and sewage.

South Bend, Indiana was on the verge of adopting a similar plan to Chicago’s until they realized that a $6 million sensor investment could save them $120 million during the building process. The battery-operated sensors were installed by EmNet near key hydraulic bottlenecks, where they collect capacity data and funnel them into an operator dashboard.

The benefits of this sensor network have already proven similar to other systems, such as GE Proficy Mobile. Instead of relying on workers to go out into the field to check the status of, say, a manhole cover, the dashboard is able to alert the city to potential obstructions or broken infrastructure by itself, cutting down on time and labor.

While there’s no promise with either system to eliminate the chances of overflows altogether, Marcus Quigley of Geosyntec Consultants said in an interview with the Txchnologist that green solutions offer the additional perk of improved air quality and property values. And while Hurricane Sandy may have been an outlier as far as her size and devastation, there will be other storms that are sure to put these systems to the test.

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