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ThingLink’s New AR App Helps Keep Water Flowing

Kyla Ball

ThingLink’s AR Solution Helps Operators Troubleshoot Critical Water Network Issues 

Clean, safe water on demand is a fundamental expectation and mainstay of our lives in the developed world. Even initially minor faults or interruptions in a water supply network can cause issues which can quickly escalate, with potentially catastrophic effects on health and safety on an urban, regional or even national scale.

For this reason, fast and accurate responses are vital when even minor issues are detected anywhere on a water network. Developments in technology have removed much of the potential for human error in these processes, but the human element remains essential. Clearly, the optimisation and development of this operator-technology partnership is fundamental to the seamless provision of this critical utility. A water network testing and research facility in Finland (WaterLAB) has been using the new ThingLink AR Solution to ensure that maintenance, fault finding and troubleshooting is as fast, efficient and accurate as possible.

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The work of WaterLAB

Systems modelling using digital methods to optimize the water sector is the specialized field of expertise of Patryk Wójtowicz, Research Manager at Savonia University of Applied Sciences. Patryk is leading Smart Water Group leveraging the WaterLAB – a dedicated space for development and testing at the university. WaterLAB incorporates a number of different water systems testing facilities using specialized equipment and laboratories. WaterLAB is also equipped with WaterLOOP – a Distribution System Simulator (DSS) – in simple terms, it is a small-scale version of a typical urban water network (from a source to a tap).

Leveraging WaterLAB facilities, Patryk and his colleagues can introduce and manipulate a huge variety of simulated events, to test various scenarios that could occur in a real water network. WaterLAB also has access to the SuperDMA (district metered area) full-scale demonstrator, which is part of the water distribution system operated by the local water authority, located close to WaterLAB.

Augmented reality applications in Smart Water

Patryk leads the Smart Water Group at Savonia UAS, who are developing applications of digital solutions such as augmented and extended reality, artificial intelligence and machine learning. In 2020 the group began investigating how the new generation of digital solutions could best support field technicians, specifically in optimizing the speed, efficiency and safety of troubleshooting operations.

They initially experimented with a number of solutions using available virtual reality and AR headsets, but found that all potential solutions were too bulky, unreliable and took too long to master. In addition, the AR software platforms would have required significant development time to build the content. 

However, via the SWIM (Smart Water Management) project supported by Business Finland, Patryk was put in touch with ThingLink, who were in the initial stages of developing their new AR Solution. The ease with which materials could be created and updated, and the user-friendly interface suggested that this would be the ideal solution for supporting field technicians.

Augmented Reality solutions for the energy and water sectors

Augmented Reality has been used for training and field technician support by energy grids for some time to help minimize the risk of operator error, and Patryk realised the potential of using the ThingLink AR Solution in the water industry in a similar way. The Smart Water Group were provided with funding by the Finnish government’s SPECTRAL project to develop the AR project using ThingLink.

Together, WaterLAB and ThingLink are creating resources using the AR Solution for maintaining and troubleshooting a number of applications and instruments that feature in the WaterLAB and in the SuperDMA, and which are used in water networks around the world. One of the AR resources is designed to be used with the EventLab system by Optiqua and PipeScan by Scan (Badger Meter Group), just one of the many instruments installed in the WaterLAB. 

Simplifying the complex with augmented reality

EventLAB is a compact but highly sophisticated water quality monitoring instrument using ‘Lab-on-Chip’ technology. It gives operators a complete grid network overview, with graphical analysis tools and automated early alerts for 24/7 network monitoring. It consists of sensor hardware, data transmission infrastructure and data analysis and event detection software. This is exactly the sort of complex and critical instrument which would benefit from a comprehensive but easy-to-use app for use by technicians in the field when troubleshooting issues. A video of the AR Solution in action with EventLab is provided below.

How does the AR Solution work?

In the video below you can see both the quick and simple process of the content creation, as well as the functionality of the AR Viewer App when used by the field technician in situ. 

  • Creating interactive resources for viewing in AR is exactly the same, and just as simple, as creating any ThingLink content. The process can be mastered in minutes, even by those with no previous experience of AR technology. You simply upload the product/instrument image to the ThingLink editor, and click on the image to add interactive tags in the relevant locations. In each tag, you then add any combination of text, images, 3D models, videos (singly or as carousels), links out to additional information, or even an entire manual as a PDF. 
  • In the viewing stage, the operator simply points their smartphone’s camera at the object and they see the interactive tags appear on the on-screen image as an overlay. They then tap them to read, view or watch, going through the troubleshooting process step-by-step.

Challenges facing the water sector:

  • Even minor faults can escalate to major issues such as interruptions to supply which can cause risks to health, secondary risks to other industries, a loss of consumer confidence and reputational damage. Fast and precise troubleshooting is therefore critical.
  • The 24/7 nature of the sector means that there is little opportunity or time for creating technical or training resources, so fast and efficient production of materials that does not require any interruption or compromise to operations is crucial.
  • Lack of support for new technologies at all levels, from field technicians, through senior management to board level.
  • Staffing and HR issues throughout the sector. These include:
    • Skilled Workforce Shortages, particularly in specialized areas, affecting water resources management and essential services delivery.
    • Workforce Aging/Retirement: Many water sector professionals are approaching retirement, leading to concerns about a “brain drain” and loss of knowledge and expertise, impacting operational and service continuity.
    • Training and Capacity Building: Training and CPD on emerging technologies, best practices, and regulatory requirements is essential. However, budget constraints and competing priorities can limit training investment.
    • Workplace Safety and Health: Common hazards include exposure to hazardous chemicals, confined spaces, and physical risks around fieldwork and construction activities. Ensuring workplace safety and implementing health and safety protocols is crucial to protect staff.

The Benefits of ThingLink’s AR Solution:

“It’s much easier for even untrained staff to go into the field with this kind of support. You can be confident that that person is doing their job correctly.”

Patryk Wojtowicz
  • Reduces errors, increases success rate and precision of troubleshooting.
    Which in turn:
    • Reduces costs – less unintentional damage to expensive or critical equipment, less time spent in the field troubleshooting or awaiting resolution.
    • In some cases can reduce danger to staff.
    • Mitigates for staff shortages in water industry.
    • Simplicity of the user experience reduces the need for specialist employee training and onboarding in assistive technologies
    • Increases confidence in staff, which in turn increases staff morale and, in turn, retention.
  • The ThingLink AR solution is incredibly simple and intuitive for resource creators, even those with no augmented reality training or experience.
    • Speed: It’s incredibly fast to create material in ThingLink. For example the Optiqua AR resource seen above took less than two hours to create.
    • Ease: Easy and intuitive to create and update. Slick and accessible, the content is easy to update when any changes or updates to the system are made. In fact it allows for constant and regular updating of materials if required. 
  • The AR Viewer App user interface is also very intuitive, clean and easy to navigate for viewers.
    • Rather than using AR glasses, the app is accessed via the technician’s phone or other mobile device, instantly providing a sense of familiarity and confidence, and a somewhat gamified experience. There is no need for specific AR training programs to introduce it, which will shorten the training process on new instruments, in turn reducing training costs.
    • This can help address resistance to change that often comes with the introduction of new technology in the utilities sector.

“ThingLink is very user friendly, even with a small phone screen. It’s very responsive. That’s what you need.”

Patryk Wojtowicz

ThingLink’s AR Solution: Ideal for challenges common to the water industry and the wider utilities sector

Fast and efficient fault finding and resolution is the key to increasing the overall efficiency of water networks, so having access to the correct technical help in the instantly accessible format that ThingLink’s AR Solution provides is crucial. 

“At the end of the day what we want to achieve in the water sector by providing the ThingLink AR Solution is to increase efficiency, safety and knowledge. Guesswork is not efficient. It could take you a whole day to solve the problem. In the AR Viewer App you are given instructions one by one, you are shown which button to press, which valve to close – you are minimizing the time taken to troubleshoot.”

Patryk Wójtowicz

Join our Webinar to learn more!

Sign up to our webinar (watch live or on demand) to hear Patryk and other special guests discuss their use of the amazing new ThingLink AR Solution!

Further reading:

Read how the AR App made this Ohio art exhibition more accessible

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