Nippon Gas Co. (NICIGAS) is now retrofitting its existing gas meters across Japan with a smart makeover. The IoT-based reader called SPACE HOTARU is targeted to be fully in place by the end of the company’s fiscal year 2020. It is claimed to be one of the largest deployments of smart utilities to date, with 850,000 gas meters to be upgraded.
Developed by UnaBiz and SORACOM from NICIGAS’ original concept, the SPACE HOTARU is a reader that is easily retrofitted onto existing gas meters to enable "smart" features. The Network Controlling Unit (NCU) collects and transmits gas consumption data to NICIGAS' IoT data platform, "NICIGAS Stream", via Sigfox's Japan-wide 0G wireless network allowing the gas valve to be controlled remotely. The NCU is energy-efficient and is expected to last more than 10 years on internal batteries.
"With more precise gas consumption data, we can better analyse our demand and supply and turn them into actionable insights for our logistics and distribution channels to achieve maximum resource efficiency. In addition, it will enable us to propose optimal energy usage plans to our existing and potential customers," a NICIGAS spokesperson said.
The Japanese gas company is an integrated energy retailer and supplies LPG, city gas and electricity to more than 1.5 million customers in the country’s Kanto region. In Japan, the electricity and city gas retail market were fully deregulated in 2016 and 2017, respectively and every player needs to provide newly added-value and higher quality of services, to their customers, in order to differentiate from their competitors.
Making real-time gas metering a reality
The new smart reader addresses a key issue that the gas industry commonly faces: collecting data in a cost-effective way to allow for real-time insights.
Since the adoption of the reader, meter data that used to be read manually by agents once a month is now collected by the NCU on an hourly basis, and sent to NICIGAS Stream daily. Collected data is used to visualise and predict the amount of gas remaining in households, allowing timelier replacement of gas cylinders and improving the quality of service to its consumers.
In addition, the NCU also reports on meter related incidents. In the event of an earthquake, the gas valve is programmed to auto-close, bringing convenience and real-time security to the properties.
NICIGAS expects that the NCU project will give the company a technology lead in both the shifting Japanese consumer market and the global energy front.
NICIGAS plans to offer SPACE HOTARU and the integrated system supported by NICIGAS Stream to other gas retailers and other energy retailers.
Strong technology collaboration
The SPACE HOTARU was made possible through the strong collaboration among NICIGAS, SORACOM, UnaBiz, Sigfox, and Kyocera Communication Systems. The solution runs on the 0G network operated by Kyocera Communication Systems, a subsidiary of Kyocera Corporation.
"The combined expertise of SORACOM and UnaBiz in software and hardware development respectively has helped us bring our idea to mass production quickly,” said a NICIGAS spokesperson. “The team's competence and dedication were the key success factors in developing this durable and cost-efficient smart gas meter, and their speed to market is simply unparalleled."
Ludovic Le Moan, CEO and co-founder of Sigfox, said: "It's really exciting to get this project turning to mass deployment thanks to this collaboration. Sigfox is on the way to exceed its target of 15 million objects connected to our network thanks to the increasing maturity of our market. This project demonstrates the amazing potential of industries to connect their assets for higher revenues and margins."
Tapping the possibilities of IoT
Tasked with designing and manufacturing NICIGAS' hardware solution, UnaBiz points to how effective and affordable IoT solutions can be, going well beyond the utilities sector, in logistics and facilities management, for example, allowing companies to optimise on the digitalization of their processes.
"We want to design high-quality, economical and sustainable solutions that can help companies and industries optimise their processes and grow sustainably. Getting connected doesn't always have to mean having to completely rehaul assets. It is important that businesses, consumers and the environment all win in this process," said Henri Bong, CEO and co-founder of UnaBiz.
His view is shared by Ken Tamagawa, CEO and co-founder of SORACOM, which provides the platform that connects devices in sectors that range from agriculture, energy and construction to consumer electronics, manufacturing and real estate.
"NICIGAS represents a prime example of the benefits that a smart IoT connectivity platform brings to large-scale deployments. The combination of IoT technology and cloud capability lets businesses connect devices quickly, affordably, and securely anywhere in the world, while increasing efficiency, sustainability, and customer satisfaction," he said.