Tussock Innovation’s IoT technology promises to keep our water clean and us dry. Heather Wright describes how Waterwatch could mean the end of dirty storm water – and more

Flood and sewage contamination of our beaches has become common in recent months, but if Jesse Teat and the team at Tussock Innovation have their way this may become less common in future. Internet of Things (IoT) technologies like Tussock’s Waterwatch should keep cities and citizens much safer – and drier.

Teat is chief executive of Dunedin-based Tussock Innovation, an IoT technology development company and consultancy that has developed Waterwatch, a sensor-based remote water level monitoring system. Using sensors, it detects city storm water drain problems early on, so helping councils prevent flooding during heavy rainfall. It has the potential to be used on farms as well, to monitor water tank levels and effluent remotely.

Tussock is also adapting its sensor-based technology for other uses, including a very smart smoke detector that also monitors other environmental conditions.

Teat started Tussock five years ago with co-founder Mark Butler. They imagined working as contract developers, designing software and hardware, and getting them to work together “really nicely”.

“What we realised over time was that we’re really good at providing connectivity to products – especially low-powered connectivity,” says Teat.

At the same time, IoT began to grow. For Tussock Innovation it was a natural progression.

“IoT is going to be a very, very big part of our future – and by ‘our’ I mean everyone’s,” says Teat.

“IoT technologies that are becoming available now will really be the basis for knowledge. They’re able to generate all the data points we need to make smart decisions for the future.”

And underlying it all, is broadband.

“All of the towers around the country that are gathering information will be broadband-connected and they will end up being the heart of what provides the opportunity for people to gather information,” says Teat.

Waterwatch came out of Dunedin’s Gigatown win – public meetings highlighted solving flooding issues as a key desire of the community. Waterwatch can do this by alerting council staff to any changes in water levels, whether stormwater or tidal, so the council gets an early warning about areas under pressure from rising water.

“The Waterwatch sensors can be used as an early warning system in waterways, storm water drains and sewerage systems, allowing councils and their contractors to raise flags and so prevent damage to both public and private property,” explains Teat.

However, Weatherwatch can do more than just prevent flooding.

“What tends to happen a lot is that heavy rainfall events put pressure on the stormwater systems and they often overflow into areas like the sewerage systems,” he says. “That puts real pressure on councils because they’re having to either put more sewage through their processing plant, or they’re having to dump raw sewage into waterways.”

It’s a problem New Zealand has seen played out numerous times this year. Heavy rains in January and February resulted in closed beaches around the country.

Using a long-range, low-powered WAN (Wide Area Network) connected to cellular grade networks, Waterwatch’s sensors provide continuous monitoring of water levels, with data being sent to the cloud; Amazon’s IoT cloud service.

The data is then analysed and provides threshold warnings, so action can be taken to resolve potential threats, or to evacuate low-lying or flood prone areas. Data can be presented spatially, or as a graph.

“There’s a surprising amount of data you get from these low-power sensors, so you do need to have a pretty fast broadband connection,” says Teat.

“The broadband really comes into its own in the processing – and then in presenting that data for the user at the end.

“Broadband is what provides all the links for us. The towers that gather all of that information from your sensors – whether via cellular or Sigfox, or some other low-power WAN technology – are broadband-connected towers.

Teat notes that most councils use their own independent data warehouse, so Waterwatch forwards the data on for them to crunch and use in making any infrastructure change decisions.

“But our system handles things like the early warning call-outs that alert the companies looking after infrastructure for a council [regarding] the state of the pumping stations, manholes or sumps they are monitoring,” says Teat.

The Weatherwatch system is also being used to monitor groundwater in test bores.

“This tells us more about what is happening with groundwater, and how sea levels are affecting it,” says Teat.

“With more data points collected, and a larger distribution of sensors, we are able to correlate how the water table reacts to weather events. Irrigation ponds and water tanks can also be monitored for falling levels.

“With Waterwatch, we’re in a space that will be very interesting for the next 20 or probably a hundred or more years. Resources are becoming increasingly scarce and we’re providing people with the ability to study and learn more about the resources they’re consuming.”

“If IoT wasn’t a thing, we wouldn’t be able to do that. Even five years ago, you couldn’t have provided a council with devices you could install in a sewerage system that can operate for more than 10 years on a battery for the price we can now.”

Waterwatch has won the support of Nokia – another opportunity to come out of Dunedin’s Gigatown win, with Tussock Innovation joining the ng Connect group. This is designed to bring companies together so they can collaborate on projects.

“Nokia put their hands up to work with us on this project in particular, and they are helping us look for tenders and market partners elsewhere in the world,” says Teat.

The relationship has seen Nokia showcasing Waterwatch globally, with demonstration products currently in Sweden, Poland, Spain, Singapore, Thailand, the United States and Canada.

Tussock Innovation is also developing an internet-connected, very low power, long-life smoke alarm that includes environmental monitoring of humidity and air quality, and is designed for the rental market.