Broken pumps? Sensors to the rescue

SWEET Lab developed these sensors that monitor water pumps, where water usage data is transmitted using a cellphone signal. Photo by: SweetSense Inc.

The United Nations declared in 2012 that the world had met the Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people without access to safe drinking water. But some experts were skeptical, saying that the claim didn’t reflect realities on the ground.

Studies show many of the hand pumps in developing countries break down or are abandoned within a few years of their installation. Thus, it’s a question of not only providing but also sustaining access to safe drinking water.

One technology that may help solve the problem: remote sensors.

Remote sensing technology is seen as one of the next game changers in global development. Like with cellphones and solar lamps, researchers are now working to develop low-cost applications of the technology, particularly to improve services in the developing world.

Portland State University’s Sustainable Water, Energy and Environmental Technologies Laboratory, or SWEET Lab, for instance, has developed sensors that can be placed inside the pump to monitor the flow as well as frequency of use of water and transmit the data in real time using a cellphone signal. In the event that the pump stops working, the organization in charge of maintaining it can then take prompt corrective action.

“The response time will be a matter of hours or a day instead of sometimes several weeks,” Dexter Gauntlett, chief operating officer at SweetSense Inc., the social enterprise created to commercialize the Portland State University sensors, told Devex.

The sensors are housed in a small box and come with an SD card, just like the one in the usual cellphone or digital camera. The SD card stores the data and sends them to an online dashboard “that’s very easy for people to read.” The dashboard features a map locating all the pumps and indicates if they are working and how many times they’ve been used. If the pump malfunctions, the technical staff or project manager will receive an automatic email or text message, or both, about the situation.

In the coming months, SweetSense will be installing more than 200 sensors in water pumps in remote Rwandan villages in partnership with Living Water International, an international nongovernmental organization that has operated in the country since 2007. And according to the company, the initiative, known as the CellPump program, represents the “first operational scale deployment of remote sensors specifically designed for the global development sector.”

The GSM Association, the association of mobile operators that support the standardizing and promotion of the GSM mobile telephone system, and U.K. Department for International Development cover the costs of the sensors. Each unit costs $500.

“The end goal is to see those communities maintain the ongoing operation of their own water systems,” said Mike Mantel, president and CEO of Living Water International, in a statement sent to Devex.

Part of the plan is to compare the cost-effectiveness of the traditional model for water pump operations and maintenance versus what the sensors offer. The Rwandan government is interested in the outcome of such a study, as it hopes to scale up the program nationwide, according to Gauntlett.

“We told them we're going to share the data with them [Rwandan officials] so that they can get a pilot for it themselves,” he said.

The challenge then for the program is to make sure the sensors, which will be placed in heavily used pumps in high temperatures, are durable enough.

There’s also the question of making the business model around sensors viable.

“We have to create the market for sensors,” Gauntlett said. “Well, all the data currently is nice to have and people should do it [but] there isn't someone making them do it, so there isn't a real market.”

With that said, Gauntlett believes that donors and development implementers will require sensors in all water, energy and infrastructure projects in the future because the technology promotes transparency and value for money.

Aside from water pumps, the technology can be used for cook stoves, water filters and handwashing stations. SweetLab has launched pilot programs on these applications in several African, Asian and Latin American countries.

SweetSense is looking to deploy 1,000 sensors by the end of the year and several thousands by next year. And to do that, it hopes to partner with groups like the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, the Millennium Water Alliance and other large umbrella organizations interested in remote monitoring of their projects.

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About the author

  • Ma. Eliza Villarino

    Eliza is a veteran journalist focused on covering the most pressing issues and latest innovations in global health, humanitarian aid, sustainability, and development. A member of Mensa, Eliza has earned a master's degree in public affairs and bachelor's degree in political science from the University of the Philippines.