NICIGAS is an energy company engaged in Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG), City Gas, and Electricity. Since deregulation, the company has steadily grown to become one of the fastest-growing LPG retailers in the country. NICIGAS currently supplies gas and electricity to more than 1.67 million customers in the Kanto region, Yamanashi prefecture, and Shizuoka prefecture.
As a strong proponent of market deregulation and how it will benefit the end customer and society as a whole, NICIGAS wants to create a platform to provide new players with access to operational systems and compliance services at a reasonable cost.
Currently, these meters are being read manually by gas company agents monthly. This method is costly, prone to errors, and dependent on a large workforce. To change that, NICIGAS has to digitize the data collection of gas consumptions.
However, unlike Japan’s 62 million smart residential electricity meters, over 50 million residential LPG and city gas meters are currently offline.
A Practical Innovation
Before selecting a customized IoT hardware, NICIGAS tested several off-the-shelf and custom-built solutions from reputable companies. None of those solutions met their technical requirements within their expected return of investment.
To answer the problem, UnaBiz created the “Space Hotaru” – a Network Controlling Unit (NCU) that transmits gas consumption data to “NICIGAS Stream,” the company’s central IoT data platform. This is done via Sigfox’s 0G wireless network operated by Kyocera Communication Systems (KCCS) in Japan. SORACOM built the software platform for Space Hotaru.
“We currently offer a similar service over 3G and 4G networks. However, when we narrowed down the functions to a minimum, the amount of data transmitted is, in fact, tiny. This made Sigfox’s low power consumption, small payload, and inexpensive connectivity the obvious answer,” said Yuki Matsuda – Executive Officer of Information Technology Division, Energy Business Headquarters NICIGAS
NICIGAS first presented “Space Hotaru” with basic features in a hand-sketched, futuristic-looking product. The design team took the sketch and started designing and engineering a prototype. The final NCU is 3X smaller than the original prototype and still enjoys long battery life thanks to mechanical design and firmware optimization expertise.
Speed of Deployment
To turn around the ambitious project within a short time, speed of deployment is key. The Space Hotaru is designed to be fixed onto the gas pipe quickly with a binding band. The sleek round shape allows the binding to be done in 2 minutes and the entire installation within 5 minutes.
SORACOM further accelerated the deployment of the NCU with an app that allows deployment staff to test the NCU’s communication success rate with a specific protocol analyzer in the field. NICIGAS is currently deploying thousands of meters per day.
What’s Next: Expansion
The Space Hotarus are already drawing the attention of NICIGAS’s rivals and the public sector.
According to the company’s president, the NCU can potentially be fitted on all 24 million residential LP gas meters in Japan and public utility infrastructures to manage water and electricity consumption.
The gas operator is also developing the Space Hotaru under different communication standards such as LTE-M as they plan to resell the solution to other gas providers. The LTE-M Space Hotaru will allow NICIGAS to switch off the valves within 30 minutes in an emergency.
NICIGAS also plans to introduce Space Hotaru to its 410,000 city gas users. Within a few years, Space Hotarus will be collecting data from over 1 million users to NICIGAS.