A GPRS roll-out is enabling British Waterways to monitor the UK's canal networks more effectively. Antony Adshead reports
About 200 years ago, the public was agog at new canal networks criss-crossing the land, moving traffic from one city to another at speeds previously unimaginable.
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But technology changes quickly, and soon the canal network's 4mph was overtaken by the railway system's ability to top 20mph. These days, networks are measured in their ability to shift information at the speed of light, so it is quite an irony that the mobile phone network is being harnessed to effect the smooth running of the canal system.
British Waterways looks after about 2,000 miles of canals and rivers in the UK. There are two crucial requirements that compel it to monitor the network.
First, British Waterways needs to keep on top of conditions on the canals and rivers, tracking flow rates and water levels. Second, the waterways are an important leisure resource for boat users, walkers and cyclists, and keeping track of such usage is vital to British Waterways' marketing department.
The organisation's Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (Scada) team, which is responsible for monitoring the network, has almost completed the roll-out of an £8.5m system that uses remote devices connected to its central management systems via Vodafone's GPRS network.
Although staff used to have to visit sites or poll monitoring devices by phone, the whole network now feeds information automatically into Scada systems held - for security reasons - at two secret locations in the UK.
David Boyle, head of Scada at British Waterways, says, "We needed to make better use of our resources and it soon became apparent that many forms of communications infrastructure would be prohibitively expensive in call charges and infrastructure in many areas."
Boyle estimates it would have cost up to £20,000 to install telephone lines at some sites, and radio links were often unaffordable four years ago. At the time, GSM was well established and the team looked at it as a possible communications medium, but were wary of call costs charged on a time basis.
"GPRS was emerging about three years ago," says Boyle. "It was regarded as being costly, but our remote telemetry units send fairly small amounts of data, which is ideal because the cost is related to the amount of data sent. In fact, the costs actually turned out to be lower than we anticipated."
The first stage in the project was a trial last year of three GPRS-enabled remote telemetry units. It became apparent quickly that the low cost of transferring data and low set-up costs would make the system successful and the programme was accelerated.
Full roll-out should be complete this month. Some sites will still communicate via standard telephone lines, but an ongoing roll-out to 30 sites a year is planned.
At each remote location is a monitoring device attached to a basic ruggedised PC from manufacturers including Schneider, Mitsubishi and Dynamic Logic. Every five minutes the monitoring units take a sample reading and every 15 minutes the data is transferred to British Waterways' Scada systems.
Data is sent via the GPRS network to a SQL Server database at British Waterways' Scada centre where it is rendered onto a geographical information system.
The map displays the real-time status of the entire canal network alongside key operational information. Security is covered by running the entire communications network through a virtual private network tunnel.
The benefits for British Waterways are not primarily monetary. Although the cost so far has been £8.5m, the cost of an unforeseen event in the waterways network is well worth preventing. "The whole basis of the project is about risk management," says Boyle. "If a canal breaks its banks, the liability would be several million pounds, so pure cost and return is not the measure for us."
If such an eventuality should occur, the information available to Boyle and his team is close to real time, and in an emergency that could be critical - for example, if there is unexpected flooding or draining. In such cases, pumps and sluices can be operated from the Scada centres, or by field staff sent to manually intervene.
"There used to be a delay in getting back the information to make a decision. With GPRS we have all the information in front of us to work with and we can attend to operational issues more quickly," says Boyle.
"With the old telephone-based system it could take up to an hour to pull all the information back from the 250 sites to check their status. Rather than waiting for alarms, we can spot trends more quickly."
Whenever field staff are sent out they are equipped with Wap-enabled Nokia 6230s or Blackberries that can connect to a server providing detailed information via a miniature version of the Scada system's screen.
People in the field can also use their devices to poll a site and either get updates, or view graphics of locks, or other features with water levels and other key details represented. There is also a contractor version that does not have access to the VPN.
"Without GPRS, we would struggle to provide this level of operational efficiency. Our water control people used to cycle down the canal to check problems, or we would receive a phone call from a visitor to let us know if the water level was too high or too low," says Boyle.
All that is now a thing of the past, unlike the canal network, which has seen a new lease of life thanks to remote monitoring.