Israeli startup Utilis has developed a way to detect leakages of fresh water as it makes its way through the national water infrastructure — by taking a look at the Earth’s surface from outer space, adopting a technology that was originally developed to look for water on Mars and Venus.
The World Bank has estimated that 32 billion cubic meters of fresh water are lost every year worldwide, and that the amount of water that gets wasted even before reaching the final customer in the developing world is enough to supply 90 million people with their water needs.
The financial costs of such losses are also huge, both for water utilities and the public.
The ability to use SAR (Synthetic-Aperture Radar) to detect water in the ground has been around for a while and universities and research organizations have been trying to use it to identify water on other planets for years. Utilis’ founder and CTO Lauren Guy, who worked on similar projects while pursuing his masters degree at Ben Gurion University, set out to use this technology for the detection of underground treated water in an urban environment, Utilis CEO Elly Perets said in a phone interview.
Utilis acquires radar images of the planet’s surface that are taken by satellite sensors of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and Argentina’s SAOCOM (Argentine Microwaves Observation Satellite), with whom it has partnered, Perets said.
The raw non-optical images can cover 3,500 square kilometers at once, giving Utilis the ability to access information on water distribution systems that are in place. The technology analyzes the images looking for the spectral signature of water.
Underground water leaks are hard to find. The most common method since the 1970s is to listen to pipes with headsets to detect the noise of underground flowing water, “like a doctor listening to your bloodstream,” Perets said.
This blind search allows water utilities to detect only one to two leaks per week, while Utilis’ diagnostic detection system allows investigation teams to find five to twelve leaks in a day, according to Perets.
The spectral signature can show potable water underground, distinguished from rainwater thanks to its salinity level, as detected by the radar. Also, Utilis’ team is able to tell that the water highlighted by the spectral signature comes from a leaking pipe because it can “identify the interaction between the water and the soil,” Perets explained.
By knowing the position of pipes, Utilis is then able to provide its customers – entities managing water utilities, such as municipalities or private companies paid to perform this task — with online Geographic Information System reports in which the exact locations of possible leakages are overlaid on a map showing streets and pipes. The reports are provided via a web app or Utilis’ app for smartphones, available on both the App Store and Google Play.
Utilis also provides customers with a second app called U-Collect where customers can report their findings from the location of the suspected leak, by uploading photos for documentation or adding personal notes. These inputs are automatically transferred to an online dashboard, where they can be reviewed and additional statistics are presented, Perets said.
“We don’t pay the full price (of water) because through the entire chain, it gets sponsored and costs much less than it should,” he said.
However, all this investment can be useless if leaks are not repaired quickly.
Perets explained that most water utilities were built in the years immediately after World War II, and their infrastructure is now falling apart,because it was built to be “sustainable for only 30 to 40 years.”
“Worldwide, 20-30% of water goes back to soil, and in some countries like the Philippines even 60%,” he said.
Rosh Ha’ayin-based Utilis, which has 32 employees, was registered as a company in 2013, with Guy developing the technology in his lab through mid-2015. When research and development met its standards, the company entered the market, launching pilot trials in 2016.
Utilis today works in 31 countries with over 120 water utilities, Perets said, including the UK, Italy and some American states like Arizona and California, where Utilis has a subsidiary in San Diego. He said the service the company provides costs “a fraction” of what customers would pay for other systems.
In every country Utilis works in, a local partner manages distribution, like 2F Water Ventures in Italy, said Utilis sales manager for Latin America and Italy Roberto Dell’Ariccia.
Dell’Ariccia underlined how the service provided by startups like Utilis is increasingly important, explaining that European companies managing water utilities must now comply with the parameters imposed by new EU regulations on water leakage management, which put a threshold on the maximum amount of leaked water allowed each year.
Tel Aviv based-Maverick Ventures (Israel) is an investor in Utilis, but Perets preferred to stay mum about funding rounds, just saying that Utilis is a “healthy company generating revenue.”
Perets said Utilis aims to further enhance its technology’s efficiency, improve the way the service is provided to customers through the mobile app, and create a database to improve results with standard big data tools.
He added that Utilis’ team is also developing adaptations for the same technology to detect and prevent infrastructure collapse, since many collapses are due to the presence of water in the structures. He said that the first example that comes to his mind is the one of the Morandi bridge, a road viaduct that collapsed in the Italian city of Genoa last August, causing the death of 43 people.