Infrastructure assets are under ever-increasing pressure. Road traffic levels slumped through lockdown, but congestion is increasing as restrictions ease. In the UK, climate change continues to take its toll in terms of flooding, storms and longer heatwaves.
In response to these pressures, local authorities need to implement maintenance strategies that protects infrastructure assets. Given the likelihood of ongoing budget cuts, effective asset management will be required to identify and target the most critical, vulnerable assets with available funds.
That’s where the Internet of Things (IoT) comes in, providing a way for local authorities to monitor infrastructure assets and remediate faults and other issues, as and when required.
Local authorities took their first steps into the world of IoT by adding sensors to street lighting, focussing on energy saving. This has helped them reduce carbon emissions, become more sustainable and cut costs. Over time, the authorities have added different types of sensors around motion, light, air quality and noise pollution to measure performance against sustainability targets.
A growing footprint
Sensors are now prevalent across multiple service areas. Increasingly, as assets are brought online, it will be key that local authorities embed sensors and IoT connectivity into them. However, it is even more important that sensors are embedded into assets that are approaching end of life. That is because it’s those elements of infrastructure nearing end of life that are most likely to fall below the requisite service levels and will therefore benefit most from having their condition proactively monitored and measured.
Smart infrastructure assets can assess how much energy and money they will save by first using sensors to capture relevant data. This data can then be analysed and used to calculate a specific danger (like a drainage gully overflowing) to help inform decision-making, keep residents safer, driving efficiencies for the authority and helping them save costs.
An example might be using connected sensors to track streetlights, thereby gaining a better understanding of the type of lamps that typically have defects over a specific period. That knowledge in turn will enable the authority to estimate how many of those types of lamps are likely to fail in future years. They can then generate a realistic budget for replacements, rather than having to be continuously on the back foot and reactive, effectively waiting for lamps to fail before expending time and expense getting them up and running again.
Building a connected asset management infrastructure
With a connected asset management infrastructure, authorities can start moving beyond simply tracking and measuring one specific kind of asset such as streetlights and start to look at how all a local authority’s infrastructure assets interact and often are interdependent.
Take the drain network as an example - when the gullies get blocked and overflow, that can have a huge impact on all the other infrastructure that’s around. Typically, many of the failures that we see with the road surface are caused by water ingress in between layers — with cold water that then freezes and therefore expands causing potholes to appear. The science behind it is well known, but the fact that you’ve got different assets that are interlinked means that you will have a cause and effect across the whole network.
A connected asset management system allows authorities to model and better understand the dependencies between different asset types. For example, they can monitor which gullies are being blocked, where the different flood areas are and what the possible impacts this might have on each of the different asset groups. Over time, one of the biggest benefits of using sensors, IoT and connected devices for councils is enabling them to make more efficient use of the assets they have at their disposal while keeping a lid on costs.
With assets being put under greater strain from weather, increasing population and so on, it is key to try to make better use of them and then, at the same time, reduce cost. When something does go wrong authorities can find out immediately and send engineers out to resolve it.
Positive prospects but caution required
Looking to the future, we see the approach continuing to evolve over time as the capability of technology ramps up. Local authorities will get more adept, for example, at taking different asset classes and really trying to calculate the dependencies between them. That is most likely to come from a pattern recognition, machine-learning-type of approach. In line with this as we look to the future, councils should be carefully monitoring the latest advances in IoT and sensor technology. The use of sensors can bring significant benefits.
Of course, there are costs to using sensors, both financial and environmental, and therefore they should never be used in a scattergun manner. Instead, their deployment should be precisely targeted as part of carefully planned, coordinated and, ideally, connected asset management strategy.
However, by combining the tactical use of sensors with connected asset management technology, it can be significant boon for authorities looking to mitigate the worst impacts of wear and tear, and climatic events like storms and flooding, on their assets.
Manish Jethwa is chief product and technology officer at Yotta