Israeli start-up Takadu helps Londoners save water
As water gushes through the labyrinthine infrastructure of the London water supply system, an ageing pipe creaks, whines noisily, and finally bursts.
Within seconds, an alert starts flashing on a remote computer in the tiny office of Takadu - an Israeli start-up in Tel Aviv.
Once picked up, the information is transmitted to Thames Water - the utility company responsible for bringing water to Londoners.
"Almost instantly, we're able to detect, alert, locate, and basically inform the utility that there's something wrong," says Amir Peleg, Takadu's co-founder and chief executive, pointing to a computer screen.
The firm's specialisation is smart water systems.
Thanks to Takadu, as well as to other measures, Thames Water managed to achieve five annual leakage reduction targets in a row.
Last winter, it received the prestigious 2011 Tech Pioneer award at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Takadu is one of many companies around the world that aims to help save water by monitoring the infrastructure and detecting leaks in pipes early.
According to the World Health Organization, about three billion people on Earth - almost one in two - live in water-scarce conditions, with demand growing drastically while supply remains constant.
And out of all the water that's being supplied to consumers, more than 45 billion litres per day globally are lost to leakage - around 20-30% in developed countries, and close to 50% in developing ones.
For instance, in the UK, it is estimated that around 3.3 billion litres of water are wasted every day, mainly in pipes - the equivalent of 1,000 Olympic swimming pools.
And utility companies as well as consumers have to pay the price - it is costing the world's water supply firms approximately $14bn (£9bn) per year, according to the World Bank.
So to keep the consumer "watered" enough, it is estimated a global total of $23tn (£15tn) will be spent on improving public infrastructure that handles water and sewage from 2005 to 2030.
That is why utility companies are turning to innovative solutions and new technologies to detect leaks early - and eliminate them as soon as possible, to reduce operational costs.
Just a few years ago, water supply firms in the UK used a number of devices to detect leaks - including "listening sticks", detectors that workers put to their ear to listen for unusual underground leak sounds.
Spotting leaks early was tricky, and Thames Water, for instance, was unable to meet leakage reduction targets from 2003 until 2006, according to water services watchdog Ofwat.
But with the rapid penetration of the internet into the world of sensors, everything has started to change.
"This is where Takadu comes in - it's a 24/7 computer watchdog," says Mr Peleg.
"We operate in big metropolitan areas, picking up data from different meters of the network, such as flow, pressure and others.
"If the data shows that something is wrong - a small leak, a big burst, faulty equipment, or just a technician who left a valve open - we determine the location, the magnitude, when it started, and then send the data straight to the repair team."
Just like any other "smart" technology, Takadu uses mathematics and the internet, connecting to a computer of the water utility to retrieve and interpret data.
In the past few years, this "smart planet" concept has been leading the agenda of many companies worldwide.
Initiatives ranging from smart meters and smart grids in buildings that aim to save energy, to smart parking places, intelligent cars and even smart operating systems for entire cities give us a glimpse of what our world might be like in very near future.
And water technology developers are not lagging behind.
"There's been a massive expansion of interest in smart water tech," says Prof Robert Hope from University of Oxford, who specialises in water science, policy and management.
"It's derived to some degree by advances in technology in general, but equally in terms of mobile infrastructure that allows information on the flow and use of water to be transmitted in real time."
Takadu is not the only company that uses smart water technology, but according to Prof Hope, this tiny start-up is one of the market leaders.
The firm was first set up with the main idea of supplying enough water to Israel - located in a region where everyone is constantly aware of water scarcity
But the internet allowed it to work with countries all over the world.
For instance, one of the customers is Yarra Valley Water in Melbourne, Australia, and the firm's general manager of infrastructure services, David Snadden, says that TaKaDu's geolocation feature has really helped the company to quickly locate leaks in the field.
Another customer is Aguas Antofagasta, a water utility company in Chile.
It serves five cities with a total population of 700,000 in the region of Antofagasta, located in one of the driest places in the world - the Atacama Desert.
More than 50% of potable water supply comes from the sea, and gets treated at a desalination plant.
"Before, we only had a computer system that gathered signals, but there was no way to translate them," says Marco Kutulas Peet, the company's general manager.
"So finding out about leakage or piping bursts took several weeks - we had to gather the information, arrange it in useful way, build spreadsheets. It wasn't always very precise."
With Takadu's help, Aguas Antofagasta has been able to reduce its total water losses from 30% to 23% over the past five years, saving some 800 million litres of water per year.
"And also, every cubic metre we save means we have one cubic metre less to produce in our desalination plant, which is very intensive in energy," adds Mr Kutulas Peet.
Another company that is at the forefront of smart water technology is IBM.
Managing water systems using the internet is a part of its wider Smarter Planet initiative, which also deals with patients' monitoring and smart cars, among other projects.
And while Takadu is a small firm delivering a very specific product - monitoring water networks - IBM's smart water strategy is much broader.
Robert Musgrove of IBM Global Business Services says that its equipment allows it to actually predict failure. This means action can be taken to prevent pumps from failing and pipes from leaking, saving energy and money. For instance, he adds, meter reading costs that averaged $3 (£2) per reading in 2000 are now measured in cents.
In the UK, IBM works with a number of water utility providers, but it has also been involved in projects in Malta, Australia and the US.
And besides dealing with leaks, the company also manages river basins, all while building smarter water networks and metering to help influence the way people use water.
"While the challenges facing the industry are complex, there are solutions," says Mr Musgrove.
"The world is more instrumented and is becoming more interconnected and intelligent; the water sector can take advantage of this.
"Integrating existing and emerging technologies, and doing so intelligently, could hold the key to a more sustainable future for water around the world."