The World Bank estimates that 8.6 trillion gallons of drinking water are lost each year because of leaks. The World Bank estimates that 8.6 trillion gallons of drinking water are lost each year because of leaks. The World Bank estimates that 8.6 trillion gallons of drinking water are lost each year because of leaks. (Photo: DreamLand Media /Shutterstock)

How satellite imagery in space is saving drinking water on Earth

From Michigan to California, water issues seem to be everywhere. A new tech company has figured out one way to help.

There are water issues all around us. In Flint, Michigan, residents are working to make their drinking water safer after a life-threatening scandal. California is experiencing one of its worst droughts in history, and utilities around the world are hemorrhaging drinking water. The World Bank estimates that global water systems lose 8.6 trillion gallons per year. While half of that is in developing countries with archaic plumbing, utilities in the U.S. still lose one-sixth of their water.

Finding water leaks is difficult and expensive: Workers charged with finding leaks have to comb a city in the wee hours of the night using sophisticated sound equipment to listen for leaks underground. But a new startup based in Israel has a better solution: Utilis, a company that uses satellite imagery to detect drinking water leaks, even underground.

“Drinking water has a very unique spectral signature, due the fact it is treated in a certain way. We look only for water that carries this signature,” Utilis co-founder Lauren Guy told From the Grapevine.

Guy studied remote sensing, microwave imaging and planetary geophysics at Hebrew University and Ben-Gurion University, both in Israel. Once he became aware of the global problem of water leakage, he decided to put his knowledge to practical use.

The images come from commercial and research satellites already in space. Guy developed special algorithms that can analyze the unique signature of drinking water in the images, and pinpoint the source of a leak within an 18-foot radius.

Most water leaks aren't this easy to spot.Most water leaks aren't this easy to spot. (Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

Utilities generally don’t start looking for leaks unless they’re losing more than three gallons per hour, and the smaller the leak, the longer it goes undetected. Guy says they can detect leaks almost half that size.

The company then creates a user-friendly leakage report displayed over a Google Maps or Google Satellite layer, with location information and the size of the leak.

The company formally debuted their process at the 2015 WATEC water technology conference and exhibition in October in Tel Aviv. While they had signed their first contracts even before that event, now utilities around the world – including in North America and Australia – have expressed keen interest.

A utility can subscribe to Utilis’ reports on a monthly, quarterly or biannual basis. That information can be used not only to detect leaks, but also to see how effective repairs have been.


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