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With aging water and sewage pipes threatening to cause roads to subside, NEC's ICT technology is being used to combat their deterioration

In this installment, we discuss the water services that we use every day. Our water supply pipes and sewage pipes are actually falling into disrepair due to their age, and causing a host of issues. Because construction work to replace or check the pipes costs an inordinate amount of money, these issues are tricky to deal with. And apparently more and more pipes are expected to be affected by deterioration!

Against this backdrop, I heard that NEC is tackling the issues with water and sewage pipes using certain ICT technology. For water supply pipes, NEC provides a Water Leak Monitoring Service, which detects water leaks at an early stage. For sewage pipes, NEC is apparently trying to help reduce the costs associated with inspecting pipes via a Sewage Pipe Management System using inspection robots. I wasted no time tracking down staff involved in each of these solutions to interview them on the details.

Interviewee: Mr. Yamasaki

After working in construction, Mr. Yamasaki joined NEC's Traffic and City Infrastructure department. He currently spends his days committed to his work overseeing the Water Leak Detection Service that uses NEC's ICT technology.

Interviewee: Mr. Akaike

Mr. Akaike is a member of the Traffic and City Infrastructure department. He is currently engaged in development of a Sewage Pipe Management System for detecting damage to aging sewage pipes through image analysis.

The escalating problem of Japan's aging water supply pipes

  • MitaFirst I'd like to ask you about the Water Leak Detection Service, Mr. Yamasaki. To start with, what state are Japan's water supply pipes in now?
  • YamasakiOur water and sewage pipes are currently becoming rather dilapidated. Japan's water supply pipes have a service life of 40 years, and many water pipes were actually put in the ground in the 70s around 40 years ago. These pipes are decaying, and leaks have become a big problem.
  • MitaSo more and more water supply pipes are getting old and leaking water?
  • YamasakiThat's right. Old pipes must either be replaced or repaired. However, as I'm sure you are aware, our population is on the decline. With falling population numbers, and less money being collected for water rates, it is very difficult for local governments to manage the costs associated with replacing water pipes.
  • MitaThat is a problem...
  • YamasakiUnder these circumstances, there are moves nationwide to even out the cost of refitting pipes by continuing to use old pipes that are not leaking water, and first replacing only pipes that leak water and cannot be used.
  • MitaI see. How do you normally check whether or not a pipe is leaking?
  • YamasakiYou check whether there are any irregularities in the sound of water flowing through the pipes. When there is a leak, the sound is different. An expert technician searches for damaged areas by applying a device like a stethoscope and listening for this sound.
  • MitaBut water supply pipes are really long, aren't they? It seems like it would be a huge undertaking to check all of them using a stethoscope...
  • YamasakiIt is an extremely time-consuming task. The number of technicians is also dropping, and it is difficult to pass on these skills. That's why we decided to offer this Water Leak Detection Service, which uses ICT technology to detect leaks efficiently without manpower being needed whenever possible.

About the Water Leak Detection Service for efficient leak detection

  • MitaCan you explain this service in a bit more detail?
  • YamasakiWater supply pipes vibrate when there is a leak. The Water Leak Detection Service detects these vibrations using sensors. So by collecting this data and analyzing it in the cloud, it is possible to identify where leaks are occurring in a water pipe. To make it easier to picture, here is one of the actual sensors.

Figure Sensor used for leak detection (manufactured by Swiss firm Gutermann)

Figure Example installation on gate valve

  • MitaWow, it's so light and compact even I can pick it up easily. What kind of data does it collect exactly?
  • YamasakiIt contains components such as a vibration sensor, memory, and batteries, and the top part serves as a wireless antenna. A timer is set for 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning when there are fewer cars and other traffic on the road, then the device powers up, gathers data, and sends it via the wireless antenna.
  • MitaI see.
  • YamasakiHowever, the data can't be sent very far due to the wireless technology used, so it must be collected. We currently provide two methods for doing this. The first is a "drive-by" method that involves driving over the water supply pipes in a car to collect the data. The other is a permanent method involving the installation of repeaters and base stations close to sensors, so that data is constantly collected.
  • MitaWhat are the characteristics of each of these methods?
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