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Detecting water leaks with sonar array optical tech

Sydney Water has chosen the patented optical technology of UNSW Sydney in order to test its capability to detect leaks, which could save billions of gallons of water annually.

According to a recent report, the NSW Government-owned statutory corporation funded the testing of the University’s optic sonar array technology to see whether it can accurately pinpoint leaks in the city’s water pipes.

An estimated 10% of water is lost daily from Sydney Water mains and it is hoped that this can be largely avoided by finding better ways to detect and fix leaking pipes.

How the technology works

Credit: UNSW

Professor Ladouceur, from the University’s School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications, shared that the sonar array is like a 50-metre strip of garden hose with 16 microphones that are equally distributed along its length inside.

The microphones are able to detect the smallest of sounds. Meanwhile, a single optical fibre is used to send all this information back to dedicated software.

The software will then compute for the location of the leak.

The team confirmed the viability of their technology for ocean monitoring in a round of successful trials at Lake Macquarie last year.

For this trial, they will place their sonar array in a water main and then simulate a leak, which they expect to be able to pinpoint accurately.

Benefits of the technology

The incumbent acoustic approach requires copper wires running to and from each microphone to physically connect to the data collection head-end or collection point, where computer software interprets the signals coming from the network.

This is acceptable if there are only a few microphones. However, if for instance, an array of over 100 microphones or more will cover a larger portion of the network, then it will produce a bundle of 200 wires.

This will quickly make it very expensive, heavy and unwieldly.

On the other hand, the use of optical technology allows the bulky bundle of wires to be replaced with a cheaper, lighter and more durable single optical fibre.

Road ahead

This trial is a part of a wider project being led by the NSW Smart Sensing Network (NSNN), also funded by Sydney Water and other utilities.

It is bringing together five Australian universities to test emerging technologies to identify leaks and potential failures in water supply networks.

Hopefully, this project will provide the basis for the development of the next generation of leak detection at the state-owned company.

Large areas of the water network could be regularly inspected with the design of a longer sonar array, or robots could be used to drag arrays over vast distances through the pipes to listen for leaks.

The end goal would be to cover as much of the water network as possible to detect and fix leaks, thereby preventing further losses of arguably the most valuable natural resource.

If the economics work out, the technology could be laid down inside of all new pipes as they are being built, and then they will have permanent leak detection.

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