WaterBot: connected for safe water

By | 20 minute read | March 20, 2017

Water, water everywhere, but is it safe to drink?

The nation’s public water systems are stressed. How utilities respond to this challenge and get support for increasing rates will require careful planning, strategic prioritization, appropriate rate structures, public outreach, and effective communication with all stakeholders. Replacing service lines nationwide would cost billions of dollars.

If cities could ever justify that spending, it would be now, while the memory of Flint is still fresh in Americans’ minds. The contaminated water in Flint concerned many Americans and shined a spotlight on how municipalities regulate water quality in cities across the country.

WaterBots: born out of frustration

What happened in Flint in 2015 was appalling, but the worst part was the lying. The underlying part – that of a decaying infrastructure and problems in distribution, that was much more the rule than the exception. However, Chris Richter of Water Doctors, had already been working on this issue for most of his life.

Founded by Chris’ father, Bob Richter, Water Doctors is a 35 year-old water treatment company covering southern Wisconsin. Chris grew up working alongside his father. It was shortly after the Flint water crisis when Chris sat on a project via his involvement on the board of the Water Quality Association of Wisconsin. The project involved another heavy metals issue coming from a distribution system.

At the time, there was no accurate way to get live updates on the quality of the water supply – Chris and his team were making best estimates about the measurements of contaminants in the water. During his tenure on the committee, Chris kept coming back to the same question: ‘How could there be no connected way to have water readings that were continuous, accurate, precise and proactive, especially when dealing with potentially large amounts of heavy metals in the water?’

What started out as frustration with water regulation and management in 2016, led Chris to become an IoT product entrepreneur, raising funds on Indiegogo and partnering with Arrow Electronics. Water Doctors didn’t set out on a path to build an IoT water quality solution. It was after a meeting where someone brought in a legal pad filled with handwritten data and illegible notes that Chris realized there had to be an alternative. He recalls, “What we really needed was data we could trust, but what we had was data we couldn’t even read.”

In just six months WaterBots has transformed from a makeshift device used to help a small water treatment facility, into a connected IoT product destined to change water regulation and infrastructure problems across the country. There was never a conversation about trying to find a way to incorporate IoT’s incredible growth into Water Doctor’s water business, but rather the team realized they were faced with a water problem that could be best addressed with the ambient computing of IoT.

Harnessing the power of IoT

The Internet of Things certainly has the potential to be disruptive to virtually anything. When we look at traditional industries, and how they can benefit from using IoT, IoT can be applied as either an extension of what is being done now, or as a complete and total rewrite of the existing way things have been done.

In the case of Water Doctors, IoT is complementary to its core business, although it doesn’t remotely resemble the core business. Like the rest of the water industry, Water Doctors had been measuring water quality in person for a very long period of time. In context, the particular type of equipment Water Doctors carry is 100% non-electric – placing them at the complete mechanical end of the spectrum. Everything they had been doing was mechanical in nature with zero electricity operating their machinery.

IoT could not have been farther away from a purely mechanical metering process, yet it’s highly complementary. It’s what Chris Richter always wanted – real-time management of a client’s water supply. While the introduction of IoT hasn’t changed Water Doctors’ core business (yet), it has radically altered their existing business model and approach by giving Chris’ team the best of both worlds – enabling them to keep the mechanical side of the business mechanical, while adding a complimentary real-time measurement process.

What to do when the status quo isn’t good enough

Chris believes the industry has shrugged its shoulders for a long time, accepting the status quo, not realizing there is a better way to understand the true condition of the water supply in real-time. For generations, water treatment has relied on in-field measurements.

If the Flint incident hadn’t happened, Chris isn’t sure his organization would have discovered at IoT as potential solution to a much bigger issue. It was the incident in Flint that indirectly led to the convening of a panel via the Water Quality Association, Wisconsin Board. It was Chris’ experience on the panel that showed him how far the industry really was from having true optimized measurements of water quality.

A peace of mind tool that lives within any home or business

The team’s initial vision for the WaterBot project was to design a device to monitor a water treatment system in real-time. But for Chris, it was personal. He wanted a device he could install in his brother’s home several hundred miles away. To be able to wake up with the knowledge that his brother’s water supply system, the one that supplied water to his niece and nephew, functioned as it should, giving the occupants of his brother’s home a supply of crystal clear, contaminant free water.

Overcoming challenges unique to entrepreneurs creating a device or thing

When a start-up makes the decision to take on the task of disrupting taxi service or hotels, there’s no end to the number of challenges it faces when it comes to a wide array of business processes. However, in this example, the organization is essentially building an Internet of Smartphones network and everyone is bringing their own device.

Chris enumerates: “When it comes to IoT, the hard part is the thing. Things just don’t appear, they need to be designed and manufactured. If something gets messed up, as opposed to something in a UI – you can’t resolder the code. You are not looking through an oscilloscope. You’re not finding out you’ve fried your main processor. You’re not crawling around trying to find a resistor that evidently develops cloaking capability when it’s the last one and you drop it. But the first time that the device comes online and says “Hello World” it’ll bring you to tears.”

Indiegogo and Arrow: a perfect partnership

The decision to use Indiegogo rather than another site was due to the Arrow partnership and hopes Arrow would certify the project. The decision months later to award Flash Funding was immensely valuable, but pales in comparison to the value of their team and expertise.

“Our decision came down to one thing – realizing a really optimistic, hopeful dream. That one thing was Arrow. I know a whole lot about water, but hardware is not my expertise. The inclusion of a major hardware vendor was absolutely one of the big factors that influenced our decision to go Indiegogo versus anything else.” – Chris Richter, Water Doctors.

With respect to the hardware, Chris believes his company is receiving better components, more reliable suppliers, precision that is absolutely staggering in terms of the measurement coming out of the device. These conditions are helping to drive costs down. By partnering with Arrow, the team is able to bypass the usual terrors that keep hardware entrepreneurs up at night – things like component shortages or supply chain issues.

‘We received a completely unexpected level of support from Arrow. It was spooky – just when I was pounding my head against the wall after dealing with this for so long, when I began to question why I started this project, I received an unsolicited email from someone at Arrow asking how they can help. I can’t tell you important that support was to our progress. Not only did Arrow support us when we were building the product, they also helped with everything from sourcing components to making adjustments to the WaterBot BoM.’ – Chris Richter, Water Doctors

Building a working prototype

The team built a working prototype that could be installed by the average consumer interested in monitoring their water supply’s quality. A few months later, Chris received an alert that their water had been compromised by a nearby construction project and debris in the water jumped 40% in a matter of minutes. It was time for this device, that can alert users in real-time when water quality has deteriorated and pinpoint the location, to be brought to mass market.

Each individual WaterBot is a hardware node to connect to a cognitive back-end. On a very basic level, a WaterBot delivers a variety or real-time data to the cognitive cloud where it is processed and returned to any of the user devices or wearables. Without getting too much into the secret sauce, the team have been able to invert the traditional model of developing an algorithm and then releasing it into the wild when it’s “good enough.” Each WaterBot is part of a massive machine learning process, but it’s completely frictionless to the end user.

The tipping point

At a critical juncture in the project, Edgar Duarte, the team’s hardware designer, pointed out: “This data is too valuable to look at as a one-to-one connection between the water treatment provider and the consumer. The value of this data is much bigger in aggregate than it is on its own.”

It is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts – a tipping point where the headaches and difficulties associated with producing a ‘thing’ that measures water quality become necessary evils on a path to achieving something greater.

“Our albatross is now a Phoenix. WaterBots has become a means to an end, and a new found realization is carrying us through the pain associated with producing the ‘thing.’ We know we can achieve our immediate goal, while working very quickly towards reaching a greater goal – this is a tremendous boost.” – Chris Richter, Water Doctors

Becoming a data service in the Cloud organization

The team’s new aspiration is to aggregate the data. It’s pivotal because as Chris admits, prior to this point, they were building yet another variation on a ‘nanny cam’ to watch over a consumer’s house. Chris muses, “I’d like to say we conceived the whole vision from the beginning, but the reality is it took Edgar who was designing the ‘thing’ to help us make the leap.” While the device is still important to the process, it’s the data that holds the key to monetizing the API as a data service.

Watson IoT Platform is the engine powering a new direction

The shift towards the openwaterquality.org database is a game changer. Having the ability to create a platform for complete transparency around something that’s a lot bigger than any individual device has made a huge difference to their strategy.

Switching to Watson IoT Platform sparked the concept of data as a service and led the team to where they are today with www.openwaterquality.org. For heavier API users, Richter plans to use a subscription model, although he says it still feels a bit like the old cloud model – “Here‘s your API, good luck.”

The average water utility employs great people who care about what they are doing. But by giving them an API, Water Doctors are basically creating a task for them that could be as daunting as their primary challenge. Richter and team want to offer a different solution – one which involves placing WaterBots throughout a city, one mile apart, in order to identify leaks and irregularities to that distance. As the WaterBot market becomes better penetrated, it will be possible for the team to get down to a half-mile, block, or even the distance between two laterals, enabling a municipality to apply pinpoint accuracy to best allocate a finite infrastructure budget.

Context is a game changer for IoT

The IoT gives a data provider the opportunity, if not the responsibility, to give context to raw data. There is a huge market for cognition as a service where the IoT provider is positioned as cognitive middleware of sorts. Richter is certain that adding context around data is the key to monetizing the IoT. To illustrate the point, Richter recounts a meeting he had with a civil engineer from one of the local municipalities where the engineer’s immediate question was, “Can we geolocate? And if yes, how precisely could we geolocate a problem?” The answer to the question is yes. It all boils down to the distance between two nodes.

If water quality contaminants and issues can be monitored and analysed in aggregate, context can then be added to the data – for example, adding geospatial data to determine precise location, the data can be used by municipalities and utility organizations to determine where to look for problems.

Why is giving context to raw data so important?

The expense associated with replacing an entire network of pipes is huge. Rather than sending a team out to start digging up a section of a street until they find the problem, the ability to geolocate allows them to more precisely pinpoint issues, prioritize them, and put plans in place to rectify them.

For municipalities that lack the budget to replace everything, this is a massive advantage. By pinpointing a priority area between nodes, civil engineers can find the source of the problem – whether it’s leaks or contaminants.

“It’s pretty exciting when you consider the potential value of the data in aggregate. The sheer quantity of information that we will be collecting will be enormous. If we can contextualize it, then it becomes gold.” – Chris Richter, Water Doctors

The streamed data itself is a lower utility for the water utilities. But, when context can be added around the data, the value proposition increases exponentially for a number of stakeholders.

Watson IoT Platform: a more scalable solution

Richter first caught the water supply in his municipality misbehaving while attending a national water convention. Coincidentally, twenty minutes later he received a voicemail from an IBM representative asking if he would consider using Watson IoT Platform in his project.

When WaterBots first kicked off, the team was using a Google cloud with a SQL framework. However, as the project evolved and needed to scale, the team encountered limitations. After switching to Watson IoT Platform and Bluemix, Richter’s team discovered getting things connected and managed was easy.

Watson IoT is an eye opener

Using Watson IoT Platform makes it easier for Water Doctors to extend their innovation horizon. With Watson IoT, the team isn’t wasting mental capital worrying about IoT DevOps. Confident that IBM’s cloud infrastructure is helping to manage the mundane, they are free to work on what they dream about. Richter summarizes what Watson IoT Platform means to his business by saying:

”Watson IoT Platform allows us to work on the things we want to do as opposed to the things we have to do. On a simple level, WaterBots is a complicated problem in terms of device deployment and device management. With Watson IoT Platform, we don’t have to worry about the back-end stuff. Our time and energy isn’t spent there because Watson IoT Platform and Bluemix take care of it. The platform relieves us from worrying about the management of thousands of individual devices (we call them nodes).” – Chris Richter, Water Doctors

A subscription service to heavy API users

Moving to Watson IoT Platform puts WaterBots in a different league, as they now have the ability to offer a subscription service that provides contextual, actionable information to heavy API users. As a result, Water Doctors can provide a municipality with actionable information and complete transparency.

Watson is helping to turn the individual nodes into a pretty powerful machine learning experiment.

Updating dynamic algorithms on the fly

Using Watson IoT Platform enables the team to collect, analyse and aggregate an accurate and robust set of measurements, in real-time. Moreover, as the team moves forward, they are free to dynamically update the algorithm to make it more granular – contaminant specific. Richter admits having this capability was always on his radar, but without Watson IoT Platform, it would only have been achievable in the future.

“It’s exciting to be able to add new functionality on the fly, for example, adding the granular ability to expose a specific contaminate – lead being a hot button. We can choose any contaminants, add whichever one appears next on the radar simply by updating the container on the device and adding new features with a click of a button anywhere in the world.” –Chris Richter, Water Doctors

Future plans can be achieved – now

Chris Richter’s big break-through in the last two weeks is the realization that his team can now do things that the previous infrastructure would not have allowed them to do for two years. By using Watson IoT, the team is free to focus on more important things – while the infrastructure issues are taken care of using Watson IoT and Bluemix.

“A real-time, dynamic algorithm that improves with data over a cognitive cloud? Okay, no problem, let’s go. For us, we believe this data to be world-changing and critical. We must maintain its integrity. So why not explore IBM’s blockchain as a service to add extended security to our IoT deployment?”– Chris Richter, Water Doctors

It looks like the team’s hard work is paying off. Just recently, the WaterBot project was awarded $75,000. According to Chris, the funds will “dramatically alter the scale that we are delivering on…. allowing us to go even bigger and better to market in terms of quantity of devices.”

Aging water systems are not unique to Wisconsin or the United States

Nationally, the water supply distribution is a problem in many cities. There are hundreds of municipalities distributing through an aging, decaying infrastructure. The American Water Association, a group representing utilities nationwide, estimates that there are 6.5 million lead pipes in use in the U.S. This represents a small, but significant, portion of pipes running from U.S. city water mains to households and businesses.

Lead pipes are prevalent in cities developed between the 19th and early 20th centuries, meaning all the major metropolitan areas in the Northeast, Midwest, and California. The choice is to tear up every road in the country and replace a million miles of distribution line, or monitor it and get smart about it.

A big problem for a local municipality

Prompted by the Flint, Michigan incident, the mayor of Milwaukee has promised to address the same issue. Using Milwaukee’s distribution as an example, the city runs just under 2,000 miles of pipe to criss-cross water throughout a city servicing approximately 600,000 people.

Whether the political winds are in favour or against infrastructure at any moment, there is no appetite for the water infrastructure bill needed to remove just one problem like lead. Eventually the municipality will get to the point where they either try to replace infrastructure with a lot of pipes predating World War II or layer a smarter end-of-line solution over the top.

Putting real-time monitoring into multiple water suppliers

The WaterBot solution is by no means limited to the water supply at a single office, backyard or even the service area in southern Wisconsin. Chris and team plan on bringing water quality monitoring and management to a national level, through private-public collaboration between city officials, private water treatment companies and consumers.

Through open-sourced data from WaterBots, the city will be able to see exactly where in their water supply changes are happening, so they are more intelligent about their spend when it comes to construction and plumbing. Ultimately, this will save cities money for other projects, at a time when infrastructure investments are desperately needed. For transparency and accountability purposes, there will always be an open-source layer available for the team’s openwaterquality.org database.

Expanding business models

WaterBot’s municipal water implications are nationwide. Since the funding award news broke, they team have been flooded with requests for licensing deals, in the United States and in international settings. Water is a global problem. WaterBot has abilities which can make a difference.

The original idea for WaterBots focused on a consumer mode – servicing the needs of core consumer customers. Using Watson IoT enables the team to open source data from countless devices and aggregate that data for analysis. The appeal and interest in the information is not limited to utilities or even a particular county, state, or country. Short of oxygen, it’s hard to find something that’s more important than water.

What does the future hold for Water Doctors?

For Richter, WaterBots is more than a one-time photo opportunity, it’s a responsibility. There are additional opportunities on the horizon that exist outside of monitoring water quality.

For example, the manufacturer Richter partners with to produce the WaterBot nodes also partners with one of the more successful well drillers in Uganda. Well drilling is an industry that experiences a greater than 80% failure rate in the first two years. The one drilling company that is bucking this trend attributes its success to the use of a robust in-person monitoring program which measures whether the well is still pumping water.

In future, well monitoring may be an avenue the team pursues. Using the infrastructure they have in place, with some modifications to the device, Richter’s team is well positioned to be able to leverage what they’ve developed in other areas – like real-time remote well monitoring for wells drilled on the other side of the planet. Richter states: ‘We are only limited by what we can conceive as possible. With Watson, we’ve got the ability to be able to deploy our technology in these new settings – which is awesome.’

The IoT presents organizations with opportunities – from the practical to the novel. There are plenty of individuals who have been awarded funding from Indiegogo who are creating new things, practical things, and nice to have devices too. The partnership between Indiegogo, Arrow and IBM has helped Richter’s team bring WaterBots and the water database to life. The work Richter’s team is driving can help to secure a better future for the next generation of kids who are still in diapers.

Water quality is not a privilege, it’s a human right

Leveraging the unparalleled cognitive powers on IBM’s cloud using Watson IoT Platform, the Water Doctors’ team are now able to crowdsource a massive amount of data for something that is only second to oxygen for human survival: Water.

When asked what keeps the team motivated, Richter says it’s all about purpose. The entire team feels they are working together to achieve something bigger than any one individual’s goal. Having this sense of purpose has kept everyone’s egos, fears and doubts in check – at least most of the time.

Open sourcing data

Richter adamantly believes no one person or entity should be in sole possession of the data they are compiling. There is a social responsibility layer inherent in what they are doing which lies at the core of the team’s mission.

Using Watson IoT Platform, the water data creates an opportunity for some of the most impactful distributed studies the world has ever seen. As WaterBots spread out through a distribution network, the power grows exponentially. Richter’s organization, The Water Doctors, will be open-sourcing this data for municipal use to enable them to deliver quality and transparency.

‘The safest place to put this data is public view on the Internet, served from the IBM Cloud. That idea was Edgar Duarte’s and it was probably the most important decision we made. That was where we, or at least I, appreciated the gravity of the project. We needed to be the first to build that database or run the risk that a bad actor might.’ – Chris Richter, Water Doctors

The concept of crowdsourcing data and open-sourcing it cannot be divorced from the philosophical principles that first led his team to seek crowdfunding. To this day, it’s woven into the fabric of the team’s thought process. Years from now, when the team look back on the WaterBot project, Richter believes the one thing they will be most proud of is their decision to package up the crowdsourced data as an open-sourced database via OpenWaterQuality.org.

Learn more

You can find more information about how to obtain a WaterBot from the Indiegogo site.