RFID Locates Pipes and Secures Meter Collection for Utilities

By Claire Swedberg

A South American water company is piloting IDMeters' passive UHF solution designed to locate pipes above or below ground.

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Uruguay-based technology company IDMeters is releasing an ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID solution for use by water, gas, electricity and petroleum companies. The system is designed to identify meters and pipes (in the latter case, both below and above ground), as well as help utility personnel to conduct maintenance services via a handheld reader, and to identify and report any tampering or other problems regarding pipes or meters in the field.

IDMeters developed the solution—consisting of software, pipe and meter tags, and handheld readers—for a South American utility company over the course of four years, and the company is currently testing the system. In the meantime, says Enrique D’Amato, IDMeters’ president and CEO, the solution is available for other government and private companies as well, to help them more efficiently pinpoint pipes’ locations, identify meters and collect their data. The system also protects businesses against fraud, by determining if a meter has been tampered with, and by requiring employees to be onsite to collect the read data, thereby ensuring that the information is not fraudulent.

The utility company uses IDMeters’ passive UHF solution to locate pipes above or below ground.

IDMeters and its sister company, Identis RFid Systems, provide a variety of low-frequency (LF), high-frequency (HF) and UHF RFID solutions in South America for government use, such as animal tracking and industrial applications. For instance, Identis RFid has designed and manufactured a handheld reader used in Uruguay to read LF tags attached to cattle and pets. Since the reader’s development, the company has also created a dual-frequency tag, known as the Urutag, intended to enable the faster reading of cattle IDs via UHF rather than LF readers. The Urutag contains both LF and UHF chips and antennas built in, enabling an operator to interrogate the LF inlay at close range, move cattle through a portal or carry a handheld through an open area and read the Urutag’s built-in UHF inlay, in order to obtain the same unique ID.

According to D’Amato—who is also the president and CEO of Identis RFid Systems—the Urutag was developed in response to farmers’ requests for such a tag, to enable the use of a longer range read while still complying with the Uruguayan government’s requirements that an LF 125 KHz identification tag be attached to every cow. “The UHF system, inside the ear tag, brings much faster and [more] accurate readings, offering the possibility to count many cattle on the run,” D’Amato states. “This operational benefit is very important for the owner of the farm, allowing them to know, in a few minutes, all that happens with their cattle—something that LF ear tags cannot do.” The Urutag is not yet is use, he explains, because the current government contract for tag use does not permit the use of UHF technology. Therefore, IDMeters is waiting for the existing contract to end, and for the next contract to be issued that would allow the Urutag’s deployment in Uruguay.

Enrique D’Amato, IDMeters’ president and CEO

Identis RFid had also developed a solution, known as Pegasus, which is used by government agencies to track weapons and other items that require a high level of security. This system includes custom-made software, Identis-designed RFID tags and Pegasus readers to interrogate those tags in the field.

Approximately four years ago, a utility company approached Identis RFid Systems, seeking the firm’s help in managing its infrastructure of pipes and meters using a variation on the Pegasus system. The company sought to ensure that meters located throughout a wide geographical area (either indoors or outdoors) were not tampered with and were read properly, and that no mistakes were made related to the recording of meter data, such as misidentifying a given meter. It also wanted to be able to easily locate a pipe underground if such access was deemed necessary.

IDMeters—founded in 2010 to create this solution—had until recently been working with Identis RFid on the technology, which the company is now trialing. It consists of a handheld reader with built-in hardware provided by Convergence Systems Ltd. (CLS) to read tags in the field. The IDMeters tag comes in two forms: a wire seal and a plastic ring. Each seal comes with an RFID chip selected for the use case, such as Impinj‘s Monza X-2K Dura chip, for reading with a UHF reader. The tag’s high memory enables the storing of meter readings if the company opts to do so. However, D’Amato says, the tags could also utilize LF or HF chips, if a customer requests this.

Utility personnel must periodically collect meter data indicating the volume of water or gas that has passed through a particular pipe, as well as provide maintenance to pipes or meters. In the case of meter data, without RFID, workers must proceed to a meter and manually write down its details, along with that meter’s ID number. If an employee makes a mistake, the wrong information will be stored for a specific meter in the utility company’s system. What’s more, in some cases, a worker could commit fraud by pretending to visit a meter but merely entering numbers into the company’s records.

The IDMeters tag comes in two forms: a wire seal and a plastic ring.

With the Pegasus system for utilities, an IDMeters H Series twisted wire seal is attached to each meter. The wire seal tag can be attached not only to water or other liquid or gas meters, D’Amato says, but also to electric meters. The seal is attached to the meter in such a way that if a person attempts to access it by opening it without authorization (presumably to change the reading or damage the meter), the wire seal will break, which the staff member onsite will be able to visually detect.

Upon visiting the site to read a meter, an operator can report any damaged tags to management. If a tag is not damaged, it will transmit its ID number to the reader, at which time the user enters the meter reading. If the worker tries to fake a visit by simply inputting information, he or she will be unable to complete the transaction, because the handheld reader requires that the tag be read via RFID. “Our system forces the people who have the task to take monthly readings or maintenance operations to be really there,” D’Amato reports. “If they are not, the application will not allow them to write the values of the month.”

IDMeters’ M series ring is designed for identifying pipes. The ring is attached to a pipe, either above or below ground, and comes with a unique ID number encoded on the ring’s tag. That ID is stored with the company’s pipe details, including location data, in the Pegasus software, which could reside on a user’s own server or on a cloud-based server, as well as on a mobile application. If workers need to access an underground pipe for maintenance purposes, they can carry the handheld reader and place it in Specific Tag Location (STL) counter mode, and then walk around the area where the pipe should be located, until receiving a response from the tag being sought. In this way, employees can spend less time searching for pipes and potentially digging unnecessary holes.

IDMeters is currently marketing the meter and pipe tracking solution for energy supply chain companies throughout South America and around the world, D’Amato says. The firm invested $250,000 in research, molding machinery, ultrasonic welding systems and “everything necessary to offer a world-class product,” he adds. “For a South American company, it was a great challenge to make RFID technology from the basement. We are very proud to be the first one in our region developing this kind of solutions, with high added value to our customers.”