The power of data: how Artificial Intelligence is transforming water

This month, we bring our mini-series of articles exploring the widening impact of Artificial Intelligence on the cleantech industry to a close. For our final part of the series, we examine how AI can help revitalise the process of conserving, producing and delivering our world’s most precious resource in a manner that provides water security for all, but without draining our very finite reserves.

So how is AI cleantech changing the way we view and utilise water across the world today, and how will it affect our future consumption habits?

Building better infrastructure: AI can enable the creation of more efficient ‘digital water’ systems

It’s not just water that flows through our pipes and taps every day – invaluable data is steadily flowing alongside it. Many of the inefficiencies of current-generation water utility systems are now steadily being addressed through the use of AI-based analytical systems empowered by IoT sensors, a combination powerful enough to continuously track, predict and respond to water demand levels in the most effective and sustainable manner possible.

Increasingly referred to as ‘smart water management’ or just ‘digital water’, such systems place AI at the heart of a new way of managing water. The system’s raw processing power effectively analyses everything that’s happening across the system, while its machine learning elements allow it to continually improve its understanding of how best to respond. With AI in the picture, governments and utility providers can build and deliver water infrastructure that is overseen by an all-seeing management solution that never tires and can constantly adapt its approach to any given situation or contingency.

By finally seeing every part of the bigger picture, such systems can significantly improve the cost-effectiveness and sustainability of ongoing water operations. Already, pilot projects are showcasing the potential of this approach, as recently shown by Silo.AI and Ramboll. Their pilot system was built on top of pre-existing IoT infrastructure to optimise day-to-day water utility operations while preventing unwelcome surprises and potential accidents. Their next step envisages the creation of Human-in-the-loop AI systems, where the AI elements handle the data processing work and subsequently free up the human operators to concentrate on more cognitive tasks, such as validating and expounding on the AI system’s analysis.

This approach applies to water treatment as well as supply operations. Recently, the Australian water utility Melbourne Water revealed the success of the trialling of its AI platform which calibrates the optimal usage of its pumps without the need for human intervention or oversight. The pilot programme suggests that the system can help its parent company achieve energy cost savings of over 20%.

Tackling waste at the source: AI can enable greater conservation of water from pump to tap

As well as accurately assessing and then supplying water demand, AI is becoming an essential tool in the fight against water wastage. This is of particular importance in water-stressed or water-scarce countries, like much of the MENA region, for example, where 60% of the population has little to no access to clean drinking water. Every litre wasted through leaks, burst pipes and other anomalies is a litre that could be saving or improving lives.

This isn’t merely a regional issue of course, it’s a global one.  One recent report suggests that the US alone wastes 7 billion gallons of drinking water per day. With the imperative of reducing such drastic wastage in mind, AI is being employed more widely to analyse water flows in real time, sending alerts and shutting off systems automatically whenever leaks and anomalies are encountered. This approach prevents water wastage and saves on operational costs, as the system reacts in a fraction of the time it would take a human engineering crew to observe, find and fix the problem unaided.


Smart farming: AI is at the heart of efficient water use in next-gen farms

According to the World Bank, agriculture is responsible for approximately 70% of all water withdrawals globally, making it our biggest water-using sector by far. Even more remarkably, reports from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) suggest that as much as 60% of all water used in agriculture may be going to waste. This means that essentially, agriculture is causing perhaps as much as 42% of all water withdrawals across the entire world to be wasted.

This startling and unsustainable level of inefficiency needs to change and is already prompting the acceleration of smart farming techniques powered by AI solutions. A widening range of systems and solutions are combining to create the digitally-empowered farm of the future, which utilises the minimum amount of water while wasting none of it. Typical emerging AI-based solutions include:

  • ‘Precision-based’ AI analytics systems that use a range of data sets including satellite imagery, climate, temperature, humidity and weather predictions to suggest optimal crop management decisions that use and waste less water.
  • Soil and light sensors feeding data to an AI solution capable of delivering strategic insight on the most appropriate times to water crops, use fertilisers, etc.
  • Holistic ‘smart irrigation’ systems capable of delivering highly precise water coverage for crops while pre-emptively handling leaks etc.

AI can change the future of water

Last month, PWC released a report stating that AI could provide humanity with a far more sustainable future if it is correctly harnessed in four key sectors, of which water is one. Alongside energy, transport agriculture, AI usage in water could unlock a $5.2 trillion contribution to the global economy and a 4% reduction of GHG (Greenhouse Gases) by 2030, according to the report’s research models.

Evidently, the pressing specific need to tackle specific water-related issues (water scarcity, contamination, wastage, etc) coupled with the wider need to repair our shared global environment through greater sustainability efforts is driving the widespread adoption of AI solutions in water-based contexts. If this trend continues – as plenty of prominent industry analysts and media observers believe it will – it may quickly transform the way we supply and consume water. This in turn could provide safe and secure supply lines even for those in the worst water-stressed regions of the world, while ensuring a more sustainable long-term global outlook. In time, perhaps by the beginning of the 2030s, this may equate to innumerable lives saved and improved, alongside trillions of dollars-worth of economic gains.