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Future Forward: Five Ways AI Is Going to Shape the Future of Water and Resilient Infrastructure

Rifat Alam on May 5, 2023 - in Articles, Column

For quite some time, we’ve been aware of artificial intelligence (AI). But for most of us, AI was limited to fantastic science fiction tales in the movies or large-scale experiments conducted by scientists and engineers.

Certainly, who thought it would be something of significance that would directly touch our daily lives? Recently there has been a shift in that perception, with a surge in popularity among individuals and organizations discovering ways to utilize AI in one form or another to benefit daily life.

While AI and machine learning (ML) were well-established within the technology industry, those enterprise tools were perceived as premium products only. Publicly available AI tools have been on the rise in recent years, gaining immense popularity across various industries.

Leveraging AI for Water and Resilient Infrastructure

The exponential growth of data plays a critical role in AI’s success. In today’s world, data are being generated at an unprecedented rate—a trend that’s going to continue across the globe.

Another significant driver of the recent rise in AI is the growing availability of cloud computing. Cloud-based platforms allow a flexible and cost-effective way to access the computational power required to run large AI algorithms.

The need to invest in infrastructure is becoming increasingly pressing, particularly in the face of climate change. Extreme weather events such as flooding and sea-level rise are putting our infrastructure at risk; without significant investment, many communities will be left vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. This includes not only the risk of damage to infrastructure during extreme weather events, but also the increased costs of maintaining and operating infrastructure in a changing climate.

AI and emerging technologies will play a key role in these efforts. Beyond just using typical pattern recognition or finding trends from historical data, AI has a lot to offer that will redefine the future of water infrastructure planning and management.

The following are five ways AI is going to change the future of water and infrastructure in the United States and around the globe:

1. Predictive Maintenance for Water Supply

AI can help predict equipment failures and maintenance needs, leading to improved uptime and reduced downtime. Several local municipalities and agencies across the United States have implemented AI systems that detect potential equipment failures in real time, allowing maintenance teams to address issues before they cause a problem.

2. Future Flood-Risk Prediction

Mother Nature can be extremely complex when it comes to flooding. The classical practice of future flood-risk determination was based upon “past performance” or historical data.

AI has added a new dimension to future flood-risk detection for complex predictive modeling. Numerous pilot studies are being conducted nationwide where the AI can “learn” using previously completed modeling—instead of just historical data—and “predict” the flood risk for more-complex areas with multiple risk factors. This allows the authority in charge to take preemptive measures to protect its infrastructure and citizens by helping mitigate flooding impact.

3. Water Quality

AI can analyze future water-quality patterns using similar results and data from sensors to identify changes in water quality, which can be indicative of contamination or other issues. This enables the local agency to have preplanned action plans ready to respond to issues such as harmful algae blooms or other contaminants.

4. Sustainability and Energy Optimization

Water treatment and distribution require significant amounts of energy, making them an ideal candidate for optimization through AI use. AI can be utilized to predict future demand in treatment and distribution networks by analyzing historical water-usage patterns. AI also can be used to optimize the distribution network itself.

By analyzing flow rates, pressure and other data, AI can identify areas of the network that are over- or underutilized. This can serve as a decision support system to adjust the network and ensure water is distributed efficiently, reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions.

5. Asset and Water-Resource Management

AI can help manage and prioritize infrastructure assets, ensuring their proper maintenance and replacement. It also can help conserve water by optimizing irrigation and reducing wastage.

Time to Harness the Power of AI

There’s no doubt AI is going to transform the water and infrastructure industry in a multitude of ways, from improving water-resource management to addressing issues of climate and flood resiliency; AI has the potential to address many of the industry’s most-pressing challenges.

As technology continues to advance, we can expect to see even more innovative solutions emerge to help ensure a sustainable and efficient future for our water and infrastructure systems. WSP is currently involved in several innovative pilot projects for future flood-risk assessment, the findings of which will be used in the future to train AI/ML based algorithms. 


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About Rifat Alam

Rifat Alam, P.E., is an assistant vice president and Texas water resources business lead for WSP USA; email: [email protected].

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