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These Smart Sewers Are Part Of A Growing Trend Connecting Infrastructure To The Internet


There's smart sensor technology in nearly everything these days from doorbells to toasters. In South Bend, Ind., officials took the smart sensor underground into the city's sewer system. Jennifer Weingart of member station WVPE reports.

JENNIFER WEINGART, BYLINE: Back in 2004, South Bend was facing a problem, an $860 million problem. That added up to nearly $10,000 for every person that lives there.

KIERAN FAHEY: Which is astronomical.

WEINGART: That's Kieran Fahey, who handles planning for the city's sewer department. He says the EPA ordered South Bend to keep sewage out of the St. Joseph River, but the city couldn't afford the fix until it went high-tech.

FAHEY: We'll be able to spend, you know, a fraction, maybe like a quarter of that amount, but still meet the same environmental benefit by maximizing what, you know, we have and doubling down on smart sewers.

WEINGART: Smart sewer technology was originally developed for military uses. It came out of research that Mike Lemmon and others did at the University of Notre Dame.

MIKE LEMMON: That particular project was involved in sort of exploring the uses of so-called embedded sensor technologies primarily in military sort of things for finding bad guys who are hiding in caves.

WEINGART: It went from looking for bad guys to monitoring underground pipes. There are 150 manholes in South Bend that are equipped with smart sensors. Each is built into a gray container about the size of a small shoe box. The sensor itself is smaller than a soda bottle, metal with black plastic protectors on either end. It's on a blue cord in a PVC pipe that runs down into the water.

LUIS MONTESTRUQUE: They are a manhole cover. They have a box underneath that has a microprocessor and a radio and a battery, and they have a sensor. So these are intelligent manhole covers that are looking down in the sewer, and they're broadcasting every five minutes the data.

WEINGART: That sensor helps city workers to better direct sewer water to specific pipes. Luis Montestruque worked on the project as a graduate student, then founded the company that sells the sensors to South Bend's sewer department.

MONTESTRUQUE: They recognize which parts of town have - their pipes are sort of congested with water - there's too much water going through - and which parts of town perhaps have more capacity to allow more water to get to the treatment plant instead of overflowing into the river.

WEINGART: According to city officials, the sensors save the city a ton of money, more than $500 million. And they've made city workers like Marvin Smith more efficient.

MARVIN SMITH: I worked for the sewer department for years, and there was no real way at the time to tell - the only time you could tell whether something was backing up is somebody's calling you, hey, my house is backed up.

WEINGART: Now they can redirect sewer flows before they become a problem and dump into the river. Montestruque's business EmNet is not the only one putting smart sensor networks into sewers. Other cities have come to South Bend to study the system and use similar networks in their sewers. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg says technology like this is just the beginning.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: When I was at South by Southwest, we engaged with a startup down there that is able to test the contents of different sewer flows for early warnings of opioid use, for example. Some really cutting-edge stuff that we may not even know yet some of the questions we could be able to answer with the next round of the technology.

WEINGART: All of this smart infrastructure and the ideas of what to do next are part of what's called the Internet of things, technology that's used to track or solve physical problems in new ways. For NPR News, I'm Jennifer Weingart in South Bend, Ind. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jennifer Weingart is a reporter and All Things Considered host. She holds a degree in broadcasting and journalism from Central Michigan University, prior work experience from WCMU in Mt. Pleasant, Mich. and WDET in Detroit. She likes stories that involve passionate people doing awesome things. Her work is heard on WVPE, the Michigan Public Radio Network, Indiana's regional journalism cooperative and a few times on NPR.
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