For the utility industry, sensors represent an opportunity — a chance to modernize and update the way power consumption is measured and monitored. But there’s also an inherent challenge.
“When you have literally tens of millions of edge points, it is not feasible to backhaul that data in real time. There is too much cost. The bandwidth availability isn’t there,” said Dave McCarthy, senior director of product at Internet of Things software solutions firm Bsquare.
A new apps community from Bsquare and utilities technology provider Itron aims to bridge that gap. It is accessible to developers working on Itron’s OpenWay Riva App platform, and is powered by Bsquare’s DataV IoT software stack, which allows utilities to dynamically and securely download apps to targeted populations of remote devices. The aim is to deliver ready access to a range of apps that will help utilities to derive the most benefit from the vast IoT deployments that are expected to coming in next few years.
BI Intelligence predicts the global installed base of smart meters will swell to 930 million in 2020. Research and Markets foresees the global IoT market in the utility industry growing to $11.7 billion by 2020.
Energy companies and other providers will need apps to manage the torrent of data flowing in off those connected devices. That’s where the new apps initiative comes into play, with 15 apps already available and more in the pipeline. These tools cover a range of potential functions in the utility IoT ecosystem.
One app addresses issues of location awareness. Meters and sensors often get mis-coded, making it extremely difficult to associate the right sensor with the right location. “So this is like a ‘find my phone’ app, except that is will find your meter,” said Itron Vice President of Marketing Sharelynn Moore.
Another app functions as a tilt sensor inside a meter. That’s not new: Sensors have long been able to determine whether a meter has been tilted, in order to alert the utility to possible tampering. But this app is different, in that it can differentiate between tampering and others causes, as for instance from an earthquake. “It helps the utilities determine the scale and scope and extent of an event in a more sophisticated way,” Moore said.
Power meters are not the only sensor-driven utility technology to benefit from the new apps. Washington State University researchers are offering an app that will help air quality researchers attach sensors to streetlamps, rather than relying on towers and other high-altitude collection sites. “They think that by moving these to street level, this could deliver a breakthrough difference in the kinds of data they are able to collect,” Moore said.
The emergence of an app store tied to the utility industry reflects the profound changes underway in what had been, until recently, a highly traditional enterprise. “We are undergoing more change in the utility industry today than we have seen in the last 40 years,” Moore said.
A range of factors are pushing utilities to seek out smarter solutions. Price pressure is intense. The rise of transactional power has changed conventional equations, with solar and wind providers feeding the commercial grid, while utilities are simultaneously losing customers to these alternate energy sources. “So they need to push new developments, they need to be more efficient and add new value streams,” Moore said.
IoT offers a way for utilities to get out in front of this cresting wave. “If utilities seize the opportunity, they can leverage this to enhance customer offerings and increase customer engagement,” said Casey Talon, principal research analyst with Navigant Research.
Apps can help utilities to make that move. Take for instance the outage management app from engineering and data analytics firm Cyient, which won Itron’s innovation challenge in fall 2016.
Itron challenged developers to produce innovative apps on its Riva platform, a distributed intelligence platform that supports sensing technologies and dynamic applications at the device level.
Cyient came up with a mobile and Web application that predicts outages and communicates critical information to customers, while also allowing customers to report outages to the utility. It offers a visualization of the outage area with near real-time notifications.
“Outage management is a challenging business operations task and most utilities respond reactively. Our app predicts and proactively communicates outages and manages estimated restoration times to achieve enhanced customer satisfaction,” Jaishankar Jayaraman, contest team leader and head of Cyient’s North America Solutions, said in a press release.
This kind of capability could help utilities take sensors to a new level of functionality. “Most utilities realize that on top of their physical asset base they need to overlay a digital layer, something to tie all those platforms together,” Moore said. “They need it to better communicate with their customers. They need it in order to get deeper visibility into every home and business.”
Utilities could leverage these tools to gain a competitive edge in a tightening market. With the aid of smart apps, “the meter doesn’t have to do just one thing anymore,” McCarthy said. “It used to just count usage. But with the incremental functionality of the apps, there are so many things utilities can do to run their business better.”
In the near future, apps will enable a higher degree of interaction between sensors at the edge, as utilities look for ways to process and react to information faster. With potentially tens of millions of sensors in play, hauling data to headquarters for analysis will be less effective than using app-based data management to create ad hoc processing in the field. “It’s better to move the logic to where the data is, than to move all that dada back to where the logic is,” McCarthy said.
If apps can in fact deliver in-field processing, with nodes readily able to exchange and analyze information, that in turn could drive improved services. Power grids could self-heal more readily, responding to disruption with far less need for human intervention.
“Ultimately we want to provide some autonomy for the meters to understand what is happening and to be able take action,” McCarthy said. “That’s where this is heading."
A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.