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Varuna Builds ‘Digital Twins Lite’ for Small Utility Budgets

The startup is emulating the more precise, costlier digital twins that small water utilities can’t afford. The idea is that even with less precision, the product will help utilities act faster to deliver clean water.

water pumping station
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Water utilities are starting to implement game-changing tools called digital twins that allow them to virtually re-create their entire infrastructure network, giving them the ability to spot problems earlier and work faster to deliver clean water to the people.

Well, the bigger utilities are, anyway.

That’s the thesis with which the water tech startup Varuna is entering into the market for digital twins. The smaller utilities — of which there are about 140,000 in the U.S. — also need to deliver clean water to the public, but don’t necessarily have the budget to afford a multimillion-dollar solution.

So Varuna has developed what it calls a “digital twin lite,” which isn’t quite as precise as the kind of digital twin one might find at a big city’s water utility, but which can offer the same basic functionality.

“The DC Waters, the New York Cities of the world, they now have these fancy tools,” said Seyi Fabode, CEO and co-founder of Varuna. “But the guys in rural Louisiana who do the same work — the scale is different, but it’s still fundamentally the same work, trying to deliver clean water consistently — why aren’t we enabling them with such tools as well?”

A screenshot of Varuna's "digital twin lite"
A screenshot of Varuna's "digital twin lite"
A digital twin, lite or otherwise, is basically meant to take the information a water system generates and put it on a map, making it easier for people at different levels of the utility to see what’s happening. Crucially, that means seeing how events in one part of a system are impacting another part of the system, allowing utilities to better tease out where a problem exists.

“If you see a blinking dot in one corner of the city, and you realize all your technicians are on this side of the city, you have a lot more information,” Fabode said. “You immediately know, ‘Oh man, there’s no one to address that. There’s a problem there. It’ll cost us this much because we know where the problem is. Didn’t we have a similar problem there last week?’ And all these things come flooding, more information, just from a more contextual representation of the current state.”

That might be especially important in a small utility where three technicians might be handling the whole system, offering fewer response options to address issues.

The main difference between those more sophisticated tools and Varuna’s digital twins lite is that Varuna’s don’t use GIS. In other words, it’s not a precise, latitude-and-longitude-based representation of where everything is on the map. Rather, it’s a map that attempts simply to establish how the pieces of the network are connected together and how they influence each other.

The data can include Varuna’s Internet of Things nodes, which generate more information in more parts of the network than a water utility might otherwise have. It can also crunch data in ways meant to appeal to people of varying job functions.

“The public works director, the plant manager and the technicians — the results should be a way for them to all see the same thing, but … it only shows them what matters to them,” he said. “So the technician needs an alert. To a manager, he needs to know what resources are available or might be damaged, and what the alert is telling the technician. The director needs to know all those things, plus the cost of that alert.”

The company is also eyeing ways to make the information even more useful. For example, new regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency required utilities serving more than 3,301 people to submit risk and resilience assessments as well as emergency response plans by the end of this year. Varuna is working on simulation capabilities that would turn the digital twins lite into launching pads from which utilities could build responsive resilient plans — plans that would update based on recent information.

“As you get new data and new situations arise, if you update the plan in real time it’s a more realistic representation of where your system is, and the problems you think might arise,” Fabode said.

Varuna has been beta testing its digital twins lite in five cities, and plans to formally launch it in the fourth quarter of the year.
Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.
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