Massive IoT enables huge opportunities in the utilities sector

Alastair MacLeod, CEO at Ground Control, examines the opportunities and challenges; and how satellite communications can plug the critical gaps in connectivity to improve efficiencies, productivity, and worker safety.

Massive IoT is an information system that uses cloud and edge computing, big data, and AI to make vast amounts of data more accessible for individuals as well as for businesses, and not least energy and utilities. Massive Machine-Type Communications (mMTC) enabled sensors allow for remote monitoring, maintenance, and assessment of data across a wide range of applications, including smart grids, water plants, substations and much more.

Given the International Energy Agency expects global energy demand to increase by 37 per cent by 2040; to contemplate meeting such an increase in demand, suppliers must look to processes, infrastructure, entire operations, to ensure these are as efficient as possible. This is where Massive IoT could really help.

Remote monitoring in smart grids reduces human error and lost time in manual visits and processes, which can have a significant impact on operational efficiency and the bottom line. Likewise, predictive maintenance enabled by Massive IoT, allows Utilities to forecast equipment failure, and implement proactive servicing, thus avoiding costly downtime. And for smart meters, data is collected, sent, and evaluated in real-time by the Utility company, rather than once the energy is consumed.

All this allows Utilities to provide real-time alerts around meter, grid damage or outages and adjust pricing and supply based on data insights if necessary. It can aid monitoring, control power quality, and increase energy savings for the customer.

With greater adoption of mMTC inevitably comes a number of challenges.  On the one hand there is capital outlay for utility operators. Not least the modernisation or installation of new of hardware. The cost to replace millions of batteries in the field, for many utility companies may not seem a viable option. Though it is worth noting much of the legacy hardware does not need to be changed immediately, it does highlight the significant challenge of scalability.  

Second, the ability to quickly adapt to surges, peaks, and troughs is dependent on data. Ultimately, receiving that data in real-time, reliably, is what allows utility companies to make smarter, faster decisions. There are obvious challenges here. Not all smart meters or even homes, are able to access the speed and ubiquitous coverage required to ensure connected infrastructure.

And of course, there is data security to considered. With utilities needing to ensure the very minimum of customer data is required for the tasks at hand, and secure from the reach of hostile parties.

Low power wide area networks (LoRaWAN), that connect devices wirelessly to their host network, help solve many of the needs of massive IoT in transmitting sensor data to a central gateway, and then forwarding these data packets as raw or processed data using satellite or cellular as WAN data backhaul. LoRaWAN is very cost effective and enables Utilities to embed arrays of monitoring sensors and instrumentation into their assets to constantly monitor and transmit key parameters such as temperature and fluid levels. Using LoRaWAN Utilities can offer greater value for customers whilst reducing operational costs.

It is estimated that only ten per cent of the earth is supported by cellular, whereas as Iridium Satellite Network covers 100 per cent. Given the wide geographical footprint across which utilities need to operate, satellite is becoming increasingly key. Automating control across the entire network is enabling companies to respond rapidly to outages, fluctuations, and peaks in demand. None of this is possible without reliable data and failsafe connectivity.

In sum, massive IoT is providing Utilities with the real-time information they require while the grids of tomorrow become increasingly connected. Satellite communications will be pivotal to this now and in the future, because without a connection, nothing is smart.

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