Australian Utility Maps Meters with Customized GPS Software18 Aug, 2010 By: Mandy Hawkey
A made-to-order handheld application helps Goulburn Valley Water's field workers collect data quickly and accurately — without becoming GIS experts.
"To the left of the driveway behind the shed." Imagine how long it takes to locate a particular water meter when that's all the information you have about its position. Now imagine it has been several years since anyone visited the meter at this property, and the shed no longer exists. That's a typical dilemma facing Goulburn Valley Water (GVW), a water utility located in Victoria, Australia.
GVW provides urban water and wastewater services to 121,000 people in 54 towns and cities in an area stretching from the outskirts of Melbourne to the Murray River. With 58,000 water meters spread over 12,000 square miles, checking water readings and maintaining meters is a time-consuming and costly exercise.
The utility intends to reduce that cost by accurately capturing the locations of all 58,000 meters, and replacing hard-to-access meters with units capable of transmitting readings on water usage. GVW intends to have whole towns outfitted with this technology, which will enable the organization to obtain hourly flow data to gain an accurate snapshot of the water network. Utility personnel will be able to use this information to track down leaks and other problems in the system, leading to better water conservation and management, as well as savings for customers.
"With this technology, we'll be able to get a snapshot of the network at a particular point in time, whereas at the moment we can't. It's physically impossible to read every meter in a town at the same time," said Noel Squires, information systems manager at GVW. Currently, meters are read every four months. "That means a customer can have a leak for four months and won't realize it until they get their next bill. This can result in customers paying for water they're not actually using," Squires explained.
Planning for Data Collection
The first step in the project is to locate all of the existing meters and record an accurate location so that field workers can find them again in the future. To do this, GVH equipped their meter-reader crew with Trimble GeoExplorer 2008 series GeoXH handhelds and Zephyr antennas mounted on rangepoles. The utility selected a GIS data collection solution to run on the handhelds, but found the meter readers did not have the GIS knowledge needed to operate the application quickly and accurately.
After discussing the problem with the Trimble reseller Ultimate Positioning, GVW was advised to approach Thinking Windows, a software development company that provides billing solutions to the water industry. What Goulburn Valley Water needed was additional GPS positioning functionality within Ultimate Positioning's AquaRate software — which the utility was already using — and the Trimble GPS Pathfinder Tools software development kit (SDK) provided these tools.
The GPS Pathfinder Tools SDK features a complete application programming interface (API) that enables third-party developers to integrate GPS functionality into a software program. Thinking Windows used the SDK to produce an application — which they named Aquire — for Goulburn Valley Water in four months.
Writing applications for the Windows Mobile operating system is complex and best practices must be employed, especially for managing memory, to ensure reliable software. According to Steve Tearle, director of Thinking Windows, the GPS Pathfinder Tools SDK is an example of leveraging these best practices. "We could develop the business application without worrying about low-level coding because the class library provided was so good. You can see this in the field because the end application is so robust." The Thinking Windows team provided full product documentation with the application, including help files and training materials.
Acquire in Action
The Aquire software was a tremendous success for Goulburn Valley Water. Instead of a complicated user interface, meter readers simply see a big green button on the screen labeled "Start". The training time for the new software is one hour, and meter readers feel much more confident about using it than its predecessor. With it, the organization is now considering changing the meter-reading process so that the field worker picks up the location of the meter as well as the actual reading.
The faster data collection process is expected to result in real savings for the utility: "Every time you save five seconds, you can multiply that by 58,000," said Squires. Previously, Goulburn Valley Water used pen and paper to record meter readings; then each meter reader spent up to one and a half hours traveling back to the office to deliver the paper forms. Originally, the organization envisaged hiring two additional staff members: one to coordinate loading the handhelds with data and postprocessing the data, and another as an additional meter reader. The custom solution meant those two additional positions were not required, potentially saving Goulburn Valley Water ongoing salary and training costs.
Instead of having a coordinator in the office, Thinking Windows was able to customize the AquaRate software to send information related to groups of meters to the handheld, mimicing the walk route sequence the meter reader uses and saving time in the field. Using a web service, up to 1,000 meters per route sequence are exported to the handheld via a web service from the AquaRate billing system, which uses a Microsoft SQL Server database. At the end of each day, each meter reader sends the data to the office using the GeoXH handheld's integrated Wi-Fi radio to connect straight to the Internet from their home. The data from their route is uploaded via the web service back to AquaRate, complete with uncorrected position information. AquaRate then uses the GPS Pathfinder Office software to postprocess the position data.
Meters of the Future
Recently, the Thinking Windows team added laser rangefinder support to their Aquire software. The handheld is connected to the laser rangefinder using Bluetooth wireless technology. When a meter is located in a spot where GPS signals cannot be received, the meter reader uses a laser rangefinder to "shoot" the position from a known GPS location. Once again, the software user interface has been kept simple, with the addition of a single button to take the laser reading and automatically send the data wirelessly from the laser rangefinder to the handheld.
Goulburn Valley Water is looking forward to the long-term benefits offered by this solution. Over time each meter is intended to be replaced with an RF-enabled meter, which can transmit water usage to a collector, an RF-enabled device that gathers data from all water meters within a range of 650–1000 feet and sends the information back to the office. The GPS location data being collected now will be crucial in designing the network and deciding on the most efficient location for each collector.
Satisfied with their meter-location solution, Goulburn Valley Water is now contemplating other uses of high-accuracy GIS data. The GPS Pathfinder Tools SDK is likely to be an integral part of any future solution, as it enables the simplification of data collection. "You never know when there's something you're going to need the location of," said Squires.