Modest little heroes
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:

Brian Back, Radio Data Networks’ founder and managing director, talks to Sam Fenwick about the water industry’s use of wireless sensors for real-time command and control

Speaking to Brian Back, the founder of Radio Data Networks – a radio telemetry/mission-critical IoT provider – and vice chairman of the Low Power Radio Association, gives you a new appreciation for the extent of our industry’s invisible influence and the tireless work it performs in some of the most unpleasant environments. He explains that PMR-type licensed radio technology and lean data protocols are being used beneath our feet to prevent our ageing sewage system from discharging effluent in an uncontrolled manner.

“Prior to [its introduction], there had been lots of incidents when sewers have been completely overwhelmed, spilling sewage into the street and into people’s properties. Anglian Water (one of Radio Data Networks’ customers) has reduced that incident rate by about 60 per cent.”

One of Back’s biggest frustrations is the tendency for regulators to use historic data for enforcement. The Environment Agency “hasn’t moved into the 21st century where it mandates monitoring, reporting and mitigation all in one. The emphasis should be not on the Internet of Things per say, but on real-time control and mitigation.

“That’s the real value of wireless technology. The [utilities] infrastructure was built in Victorian times, it has no power or cables. Wireless technology is the only way you can get signals carrying data on sewage levels out from manhole chambers to reach local [plant] command and control. The local messages can be used to control actuators, to control flow, turn off pumps, and the command and control is the one that’s used to report, but also to call out the troops to come and mitigate the incident.”

He adds that he first installed a Flow Detection Transducer (FDT) to monitor combined sewer overflow event duration in 2013, and it has won several industry awards. The FDT delivers data into existing infrastructure and overcomes the many blackspots of the cellular networks. It can be used to create real-time control systems where, for example, a valve can be closed or a pump switched off.

“In spite of the technology’s success, it has been a tough sell with many utility companies in denial over the issues of cellular coverage (below a manhole cover) and the lack of vision about a future where real-time control and event mitigation ought to become the norm, rather than, as they currently do, pouring sewage (and plastics contained within) into our waterways and oceans.

“We have even developed an ultra-low-power – no mains power is available so battery/solar operation is essential – valve that can be fitted to the discharge channels of overflows that uses the real-time data; it’s been an even tougher sell, with only two sales in five years. The utilities seem to fear that its success will lead to changes to legislation and demands for them to be fitted everywhere!”

Moving away from sewage but still staying within the water industry, Back has teamed up with Entropia, a Belgian private TETRA network operator, to deliver a “counter-terrorism-type monitoring system”, which they are referring to as “the Critical Network of Things”.

“The ideal model uses licensed/protected services all the way from the sensor to the database; we take the data right back to the database, the command and control centres without touching the public internet, which is extremely important, using the TETRA short data service (SDS) channel.”

He explains they are using TETRA to enable real-time reporting from boreholes. “In Belgium and in a lot of other areas of the world, the water comes straight from the extraction borehole to the tap. There’s no sewage process, there’s no chlorination, there’s no quality assurance. So the fear would be that if something goes wrong, if someone were to tamper with the system, you wouldn’t necessarily know until it’s too late. We’ve developed a TETRA gateway product which funnels data from boreholes as a level and also a tamper alert [in the form of] a vibration/tremor system, so if someone were to shake the borehole access covers, you’d get a warning instantly, and you could make an intelligent decision based on that as to whether or not you should close off the pumps.”

Back adds that the same data can be used to determine when a borehole is being over-abstracted and help blend the water coming from different layers of the strata to boost its quality and prevent saline intrusion. “The mission-critical nature of the TETRA network, for example, ticks all the boxes with respect to cyber security as the data doesn’t touch the internet.

“We’ve been able to win some projects in Belgium and the Netherlands because of the mission-critical approach we’ve applied to the technology, and it’s certainly been better received since the terrorist attacks of late, when all the cell phone networks collapsed around Brussels.”

Speaking generally about the Internet of Things (IoT), Back believes that from the perspective of MNOs, it is something of an after-thought given that their business model is increasingly about providing the high bandwidth needed for consumers to quickly eat through their monthly data allowance. “[With IoT], you’re going to get a huge bubble like the bubble, but the IoT bubble will burst far quicker because people have already set the price in the marketplace.”

He says one operator in the Netherlands claims it will offer connectivity over LoRa for €5 a year – “that’s the actual air-time cost, no SLA; but what they’ve done is they’ve set the market price”.

He adds: “The concern is the investment required to maintain a reasonable standard of service. If you started by deploying a thousand [LPWA] devices over a 10-20km radius, once the network becomes more popular, the range will reduce because of interference – there’s no synchronisation of messages, they all transmit simultaneously; the message would go out and clash in the time domain and so on. So, as deployments increase in the licence-free bands, the chances are that your transmission distance will drop.”

He believes that when that happens, IoT network operators using unlicensed spectrum won’t add additional masts to compensate “because at €5 per device for the year, you’re going to need an awful lot of devices to justify the investment to buy the real estate and erect another mast, particularly if it’s a rural location with no humans to generate revenue”.

He continues: “People’s expectations will be set high and I fear there will be a lot of disappointment and we’ll go back to where we were with Bluetooth – in about 1994 the claims were that it would work at 1km and cost $4 per device; we reached $4/device in 2010, but the 1km range never happened! That damaged the industry as the hype caused people to withhold their spending.”

To Back, one issue that is often left out of business models is the cost associated with site access. “If you take the UK, it may take you up to three months to access, install or repair a sensor under a manhole in a street” – in addition to around £2,000 in bureaucracy, a team trained to work in confined spaces, portable traffic lights and night working. “So, reliability and testability is more important to a utility than a low-cost sensor.”

Back believes a lot of the low-hanging fruit for the IoT would have been “de-manning the mundane tasks that aren’t performed correctly”, but the business case for this is eroded by lack of enforcement. “In 2001, I won a contract with a large telecoms company to deliver automated freezer and refrigeration monitoring for foodchain suppliers. That was an IoT type of application. It didn’t get off the ground because trading standards didn’t enforce the legislation, which says every eatery has to monitor temperature in refrigerators and keep an audit.”

He lists similar tasks such as legionella monitoring and monitoring emergency lighting systems. “These are just a few examples of things that have to be monitored by law by virtually every business. In 99.9 per cent of cases, they aren’t, and they’re subject to fraud.”

The possibility that Brexit could lead to deregulation does make the prospect of greater enforcement feel somewhat remote. Back adds that as far as the water industry is concerned, there is little room for manoeuvre. If it were to deregulate, he says: “We would become the dirty man of Europe and the French would say, ‘Come to Brittany for your holiday, where we monitor and control our bathing waters, or would you like to go to the UK and bathe in sewage?’ It would be a huge PR disaster.”

CV – Brian Back
Brian Back started developing power distribution equipment in the power, water and rail sectors, before becoming a student apprentice and graduating with a degree in electronic engineering, design and production in 1987 from Middlesex University. He became vice chairman of the Low Power Radio Association in 2000.

In 2003, he developed Network Rail’s critical rail monitoring system, and won the Railway Industry Innovation Award for it in 2007. He sold his first business in 2005 and chose to re-enter the market by founding Radio Data Networks in 2010. Back was appointed as a member of the Worshipful Company of Engineers in 2013, and recently has become the chairman of a new venture to tackle the skills shortage in the engineering sector. Called Engineering Futures Limited, it encourages children to consider a career in engineering and to engage early on with potential employers.

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