2012-10-25 / General Stories

Aqua WSC Sends a Message to Members

by William Loven, General Manager

As you know, Aqua Water converted to drive-by radio read meters over the past few years. The conversion has been complete for some time and this project increased our meter reading efficiency markedly. Still, meter reading is not as simple as it appears on the surface.

First, we do everything possible to ensure the length of your billing periods are as consistent as possible. But of course, Mother Nature and Mister Murphy occasionally weigh in and things can go wrong. Every month we send three drivers out to read all 17,500 Aqua meters. In essence, they have to drive every single road in Bastrop County and some small portions of the surrounding counties. It takes them one entire week.

As they drive by your meter, a special computer in the vehicle picks up the tiny radio signal emitted by your meter and records your data. Later, all of the data is downloaded from the three computers and reviewed by our administrative department.

Every month, we find that we have some errors: missing reads, impossibly high or low reads, or just plain garbled data. Errors can occur due to weather, vegetation, or a weakened battery in the register. So, that means we have to send the drivers back out to recollect reads on something like 50-150 meters. It’s a lot more efficient than the old days, but hardly very green.

Our meter manufacturer actually makes the UAV, and it is used in other countries to read meters. The operator simply programs in a series of GPS waypoints out and back, sets the flight altitude, and launches the UAV with a large slingshot. There is no vision system in the UAV, just a tiny radio receiver to read the meters and small GPS navigation system. When the UAV returns to base, it dives down to 200 feet, shuts off the engine, and deploys a small parachute.

The operator simply catches it as it drifts back to the ground. Then, they swap the battery, load in the next route, and off it goes again. You could hardly get more efficient or more green!

Sadly, it may be a long time before we realize such a green dream. The FAA has no established flight rules for UAVs that operate out of line of sight, though they are supposed to propose some draft rules within the next year. And, as soon as you say UAV or drone, folks think of Predator drones and spy planes. Presently, only law enforcement, search & rescue, and INS are allowed to use drones. While they are larger than the 20 ounce model, most are only three to six feet long. Hopefully, we will be able to deploy UAVs to read meters before I reach retirement age!

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