The word drone may conjure thoughts of sci-fi flicks, or images of attacks carried out remotely on hostile lands, or even your high-school biology teacher's voice. You certainly don't expect a drone to help save water, but that's what Arad Metering Technologies intends to do. The Israeli company's battery-operated drone is one of the novel tools it's deploying to help consumers and companies conserve H2O — and to make money.
That such an idea would come out of Israel is no coincidence. The country is poor in water and rich in tech innovation, much of it born of constant military conflict. Israel pioneered the use of unmanned aerial vehicles after it lost many fighter jets in the 1973 war. But Arad's drones don't fight: They read data from the company's patented water-meter system to detect leakage or, in irrigation systems, drought.
The World Bank estimates that water wastage costs utilities $14 billion a year worldwide; in developing countries, 200 million more people could be served by the water lost to leaks and theft. Arad CEO Dan Winter says this is largely a consequence of how the business works in places where water is cheap or untaxed: "You train people to abuse water because they pay very little."
This broken system created an opportunity for Arad, which has deep green roots. Its parent company, the Arad Group, began making water meters in 1941, after prescient members of Kibbutz Dalia saw how the devices could help save water. Winter says his tech-centric unit seeks "to bring an added value" to both the core business and customers. Its technology can find irregularities — a pipe failure, an unusually low flow rate, or a too-constant one that could indicate a leak — in a few hours, rather than every 60 days as with a typical meter reading.
Arad's system is built around what looks like a standard meter. The difference is on the inside, where you'll find 3G wireless technology, a microcontroller, and 20-year batteries. Every 11 to 30 seconds, the system transmits data, which can be picked up by a drone (best for quickly covering big distances in remote areas) or by a drive-by or fixed-base reader. The data are then analyzed by computer to gauge how much water has been consumed, how much was lost, and even where tampering may have taken place. As a result, companies can save both water and man hours.
Arad has realized that water loss is a significant issue beyond arid nations like Israel; it plagues even water-abundant countries. So it has focused on the biggest ones. Its largest cluster of clients is in the United States, and its next four biggest markets are now Brazil, China, India, and Russia — a quartet of emerging powers that suggests the size of both the problem and Arad's ambition.
The possibilities for Arad's services go far beyond water. Winter sees potential for monitoring everything from municipal infrastructure, such as traffic lights, to security-camera networks — basically any complex system prone to localized failures and waste. And if Arad has its way, drones could soon be associated with saving, not destroying; life, not death.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.