‘Lighting as a platform’ incorporating connectivity, intelligence


It takes a long time for some innovations to have a global impact. Others create enormous change quickly. The lighting industry put itself in the second category when it started replacing low-efficiency incandescent lighting with much higher-efficiency LED fixtures. Government regulation, rebate schemes, and efficiencies of scale in manufacturing have all helped accelerate this transition.

Now lighting consumers can buy a much better-quality product than was previously available at little extra cost. How much better? An incandescent lamp converts electricity into light with an efficiency of around 4%: for an LED the figure is closer to 50%.

Aggregating the effect of this efficiency gain over large markets could lead to vast energy savings. For example, the U.S. Department of Energy has a program to accelerate the uptake of solid-state lighting, and it estimated in December 2019 that if that program meets its goals, the United States could save $890 billion on lighting bills between 2017 and 2035 by using the technology. That energy saving will also translate into a welcome reduction in the impact of lighting on climate change.

Humans like light because it helps us feel safe and is associated with warmth. When lighting gets cheaper, we tend to use more of it to extend our days beyond the limitations imposed by daylight, to light more of our environments, and to light them more brightly. The challenge for an industry that is committed to improving the overall energy efficiency of lighting is therefore to introduce greater intelligence. So, we provide the right amount of light; the right intensity, color, and quality; and in the right places.

Figure 1 Smart lighting control employs an NFC reader to wirelessly transfer the programming data to an NFC tag inside the LED driver. Source: Infineon

We also need to enable new uses of lighting. In healthcare, for example, a whole field of research has sprung up to explore ‘photobiomodulation’ which is light’s ability to alter cellular processes in the human body. And although we may know instinctively—or from parental nagging—that “getting out into the sunshine will do us good”, photobiomodulation research is trying to work out how a particular type of cell absorbing a particular wavelength of light will alter a particular biological process.

While that work is going on, empirical studies suggest that some wavelengths of light can affect our circadian rhythms, help us counter depression, or improve our mood and concentration. Lighting cues are believed to have a similar effect on agriculture, with, for example, some wavelengths of light being particularly good at promoting photosynthesis.

Lighting as a platform

The emergence of smart lighting systems is creating an opportunity for lighting to become a platform for various forms of innovation in the way that buildings work, the way we light different activities in the same space, and the way that we shape our cityscapes with lighting.

Figure 2 A smart lighting platform comprises four major parts: a central control board powered by an MCU, a wireless connectivity module, an LED lighting driver, and a sensor interface. Source: Infineon

Whenever introducing new technology enables a new field of innovation, many more products and services are launched before it becomes a long-term success. There’s been a strong uptake of LED versions of domestic bulbs. Also, there is plenty of innovation taking advantage of the low energy consumption of LEDs to create entirely new lighting scenarios, for example, using LED strips for under-cabinet lighting in kitchens or as architectural accents.

Other innovations aren’t faring so well, at least so far. For example, some lighting makers have experimented with ‘lighting as a service’ in which they offer to provide a certain level of lighting throughout a building and take care of the installation and maintenance of the bulbs and fixtures for a monthly fee. It’s an interesting idea, in theory, because it takes out one critical task for a building management team. However, monthly service charges aren’t a good fit with the annual budgeting cycles of businesses and municipalities.

Similarly, some innovators believe that because lighting goes everywhere in a building and has a wired power supply, lighting fixtures can become a platform for many forms of sensor. The obvious first step is presence detection, using either passive infrared sensor (PIR) sensors or more recently, low-cost radar, to check whether anyone is in a room. So, the lighting can be turned off when not needed.

Such platforms can also be used to carry air-quality and CO2 sensors into rooms to help ensure healthy living and working environments. Next, sensors can contribute to more efficient management of heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems by providing much better input data for the control algorithms. It’s an attractive vision of healthy, efficient buildings, but in practice, it may be that building owners don’t expect to update a building’s management system very often or at all during its lifetime. So, ‘lighting as a platform’ is likely to be implemented only in new buildings.

Smart side of lighting

There’s a whole gamut of products to provide the smart side of lighting control. That includes microcontrollers, Bluetooth chips with mesh networking, combined Wi-Fi and Bluetooth chips for distributing Internet connectivity, the aforementioned radar and CO2 sensors for environmental management, and security chips for protecting smart lighting systems from hackers.

The shift to solid-state lighting is an example of an innovation that has created major change in our lives in a relatively short amount of time. With solid-state lighting now well-established, smart lighting control presents another opportunity to substantially change our lives for the better. All it will take is a lot of innovative ideas and the right partners to derisk their implementation.

Matthew Reynolds is senior manager for product marketing at Lighting, Intelligent Home & Emerging Market division of Infineon Technologies.

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