Read the original story from Forbes here.
Sensors are being used in everything from remotely monitoring cracks in bridges to playing with your pet while you’re at work. So why not apply them to improving the lives of struggling people in under-developed countries by, say, providing access to safe drinking water and cooking equipment?
Consider SweetSense Inc. A recent spinoff fromPortland State University, it uses technology developed by Evan Thomas, an engineering assistant professor who heads the university’s SWEETLab (Sustainable Water, Energy, and Environmental Technologies Laboratory). Engineers there work on such household and community-scale innovations as gravity water filters and clean-burning stoves for use in Rwanda, Kenya, Indonesia, Haiti and other places.
Specifically, the lab developed a sensor technology to improve the performance of water pumps, cook stoves and other devices. Then the university created a social enterprise to sell and install it. Just a few weeks ago, it launched an effort to install 200 remote sensors on water pumps in Rwandan villages.
(Photo credit: Julien Harneis)
How does it work? Using cell phone signals, the technology transmits pump performance data to the cloud, where it can be viewed on an online dashboard. It also sends text messages and emails to alert maintenance teams when there’s a problem. Ultimately, any NGO or agency in charge of an installation will be able to log online from anywhere and see on a map how their fleet of water pumps is doing.
It’s a big deal. Tens of thousands of water pumps are installed every year in Africa and other places by various organizations, according to Thomas. But 30% to 80% fail in their first couple of years and often never get repaired, he says. So, they’re great while they’re working—but that doesn’t last for long, and villagers, who usually don’t ask to have them repaired, are left with useless water pumps.
The company hopes to be in about 1,000 installations in not just water pumps, but cook stoves, water filters and other equipment, by the end of the year.
SweetSense grew out of a company called Manna that Thomas founded in 2007. (It was bought by DelAguaHealth, a subsidiary of DelAgua Group, which makes water testing kits, last year). Based in Rwanda, itdeveloped a way to finance the installation of clean water technologies using carbon credits. About three years ago, the enterprise was hired by a company making water filters to develop a carbon credit system for a water treatment program in a province of about 4.5 million people in Kenya.
In the process, Thomas and his colleagues ran into a tricky problem. The whole carbon credit model depends on the accurate measurement of exactly how much water people are using. But the monitoring was based on the highly unreliable and inefficient tactic of personal interviews. Faced with that conundrum, Thomas and his team decided to find a way to place sensors on filtering equipment to measure the amount of water used.
It took a while to get there, but, when they did, they started a company a year ago to sell the technology, starting with sensors aimed at water pumps.
Eventually, Thomas wants to see wide-scale acceptance of sensors by big guys like USAID and the World Bank. In fact, he hopes it will become a standard part of any project. And he welcomes the entrance of like-minded competitors. “That’s where you see systemic change,” he says.