Century Engineering turns to the cloud to keep our waterways clean
This innovative consulting firm is improving how stormwater facilities operate by monitoring and autonomously adapting performance in real time.
Century wanted to leverage IoT and the cloud to securely scale its tech-driven system that monitors local conditions, assesses forecasted precipitation data and autonomously controls the operations of stormwater facilities.Solutions Cloud Native Development, Internet of Things & Edge, Data Management Platforms Amazon Web Services (AWS)
Founded in 1953, Century Engineering, Inc. is a multidisciplinary consulting firm that assists public and private clients in the planning, design and management of a wide range of engineering services, from civil engineering to wastewater management.
“Working with Onica by Rackspace Technology Company has allowed us to stay on top of the available technologies, and they have supported our project in a way that reinforces we are building one of the most reliable IoT and automated approaches to stormwater management.”
Seeking a solution to meet EPA compliance
Stormwater runoff is one of the greatest challenges for water pollution control, because stormwater contamination is a leading contributor to the impairment of water bodies nationwide, according the Environmental Protection Agency. In 1987, the U.S. Congress mandated the EPA to control stormwater discharges according to the Clean Water Act of 1972. Among the EPA regulations is a requirement to monitor stormwater facility performance to help ensure intended pollution control goals are reached.
Meeting that compliance directive has not been easy, because manually monitoring stormwater facility performance can be difficult. Century Engineering, headquartered in Hunt Valley, Maryland, began looking for a solution that could provide real-time remote stormwater facility monitoring and automated control. The result is the creation of the intelligent, performance enhancing SmartSWM™ stormwater management system.
To create the market-ready solution, the company utilized services from Onica. Onica is a leading AWS Partner Network (APN) Premier Consulting Partner and the expertise in IoT and AWS services that they brought to the project made them an ideal consultant.
“Onica helped us to improve our overall product architecture, design custom hardware and refine our back-end logic to improve overall SmartSWM™ performance and scalability”
Choosing the ideal AWS consultant
According to applicable local, state, and/or federal regulations, owners of developed land are required to treat stormwater runoff to reduce pollutants before releasing it back into the environment. However, without accurate, real-time precipitation data, stormwater management facilities are predominately designed to retain stormwater runoff for no more than two days so they can be prepared for the next rain event.
This uniform modeling assumes that all wet weather events behave in the same ways. This approach is counterproductive to achieving maximum pollutant removal and runoff reduction since prolonging retention time in the stormwater practice is the principal means by which enhanced pollutant removal and runoff reduction is achieved.
In 2013, Century Engineering conceived a new approach to the situation. Principal Bob Bathurst, a professional engineer and Diplomate of the American Academy of Water Resources Engineers, began working on an idea that resulted in the creation of a first-generation smart stormwater management system that used leading web application development frameworks, microcontrollers and sensors.
The system was designed to track current facility storage and precipitation forecasts, then autonomously control a valve to adjust stored water volumes. A stormwater management facility’s storage volume is adjusted automatically in response to anticipated inflow associated with forecasted precipitation events. An outflow occurs in response to and in advance of a forecasted precipitation event; therefore, no discharge occurs during the precipitation event nor during the subsequent retention period. This technique provides the maximum retention time as determined from real-time, hyper-local weather forecast data while significantly reducing downstream erosion and flooding.
“Our system worked well but needed to be prepared for production-level applications,” said Bathurst. “The system required improvements to the hardware configurations, and we needed to better leverage the outputs of our on-board sensors so the system could perform more reliably.
“That’s when we turned to AWS, which connected us with Onica through its business partner program. Onica helped us to improve our overall product architecture, design custom hardware and refine our back-end logic to improve overall SmartSWM™ performance and scalability. Working with Onica was probably the best decision we could have made at that juncture of development. We worked really well together, and we appreciate everything the team has done to help us get SmartSWM™ where it is today.”
“They were able to listen to our objectives, review our existing system, and apply their in-depth knowledge of IoT and automation to help us implement industry best practices into the SmartSWM™ product. The system is a lot more reliable and secure thanks to Onica’s support.”
Solving challenges to deliver higher performance
A key driver for Century was the development of this innovative stormwater management solution into a product ready for commercial-level applications. As a result, the performance of the system had to be resilient under highly variable conditions, reliable so that it effectively improves water quality and reduces runoff, and secure to prevent unwanted intruders into the system.
These objectives were met thanks to Onica’s recommendations. Onica’s team worked on a solution for Century in two phases. First, it focused on refining the prior proof-of-concept hardware solution by integrating useful, disparate functions to read environmental data and control equipment. A key design consideration included overcoming a prior challenge with the analog-to-digital circuitry interface, verifying that the existing loop conversion did not destroy the analog signals.
Filling in the gaps with AWS Cloud and IoT expertise
In phase two, the Onica team focused on enhancing the AWS environment and making improvements to the hardware by defining requirements for tamper detection and alerting, managing the signal-to-noise ratio of the existing pressure transducer, and providing component guidance, such as with the cellular modem.
“The sensor that measures the water depth is an analog device,” said Bathurst. “The signal it sends looks like an EKG report. Obviously, water surfaces don’t modulate like EKGs. Onica helped us to solve tedious issues like this.”
“There were many little fixes like that along the way through which we were able to leverage Onica’s experience,” Bathurst said. “They were able to listen to our objectives, review our existing system, and apply their in-depth knowledge of IoT and automation to help us implement industry best practices into the SmartSWM™ product. The system is a lot more reliable and secure thanks to Onica’s support.”
Delivering high performance via real-time remote access
“We can extract hyper-local weather forecast data for any location,” Bathurst said. “We can also monitor our solar generation and consumption, and water temperature. That feeds into our backend decision support system, which sits in the cloud. It computes the optimal water surface elevations of the ponds, along with the discharge rate at which they should be releasing stormwater.
“All of that information is then transferred to our on-site micro-controller. Then it dictates whether the release valves are opened or closed, and by how much. Everything is programmed. And we can go in remotely and perform actions, such as change the stormwater discharge rate if we need to.”
Making land use more efficient
“A major benefit to smart stormwater management is that we’re able to use land more efficiently,” said Bathurst. “Stormwater management facilities are different sizes and hold different volumes of water. With the SmartSWM™ technology, we can actively manage stormwater facility volumes and, as a result, each stormwater facility can occupy a smaller land ‘footprint.’ This efficiency yields more land for development or alternate uses.
“In addition, our experience has shown that public entities appreciate the higher pollutant removal performance, land efficiency and minimization of flooding and land erosion,” Bathurst said. “It’s just a new era in stormwater management.
“In my mind, the future of stormwater management involves connected, intelligent and adaptive infrastructure. We are already working on making interrelated facilities in a geographic region work as a system to further improve how we manage an entire watershed. This presents us with the ability to improve water quality throughout larger regions, not just discrete facilities, resulting in even greater positive impacts.”
Keeping an eye on the future of innovation
As far as the SmartSWM™ team has come in developing this innovative approach to stormwater management, Bathurst already sees an opportunity to take it to the next level. “Traditional stormwater modeling techniques consider the hydrologic characteristics of watersheds to estimate runoff volume,” he said. “But we’ve come to recognize those estimates to be somewhat inaccurate. It can vary wildly. This is likely due to the industry-accepted practice to assume average conditions for parameters like antecedent soil moisture condition and mischaracterization of the soil’s ability to absorb water. However, once we have accumulated enough precipitation and runoff data, we can then apply machine learning to create predictive models that tell us how each stormwater facility will respond to weather events based on how the facilities have responded in the past.
“Machine learning is where we think we’re going to make our next big improvement,” Bathurst added. “We’ve already started developing algorithms to begin training. This is going to be another paradigm shift.”
Staying out in front of the market is critical for smart technologies. Bathurst said, “Working with Onica has allowed us to stay on top of the available technologies, and they have supported our project in a way that reinforces we are building one of the most reliable IoT and automated approaches to stormwater management.”
*Photos provided courtesy of Century Engineering, Inc.
“Working with Onica has allowed us to stay on top of the available technologies, and they have supported our project in a way that reinforces we are building one of the most reliable IoT and automated approaches to stormwater management.”
Bob Bathurst, MS, PE, D.WRE, LEED AP® Principal, Century Engineering, Inc.
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