Coming Soon: Teaching old lighting systems new tricks

In the not-too-distant future, 
a time may come when electrical contractors will entertain their grandchildren with tales of lighting fixtures that existed for the sole purpose of illumination. Moving beyond novelty lamps that perform smartphone tricks, connected lighting 2.0 has arrived, bringing new notions of the role both interior and exterior luminaires can play in larger, buildingwide (and even citywide) operations. For manufacturers facing a need for new business models, these changes can’t come soon enough.

Looking beyond the apps

Just a couple of years ago, tech reviewers were wowed by app-controlled lamps that users could dim and color-shift using a smartphone touchscreen. As such products have become more commonplace, developers have begun looking at lighting systems with a new appreciation for a previously overlooked fact: along with its accompanying power sources, lighting is almost everywhere in today’s built environment. As a result, the innovation of solid-state lighting based on light-emitting diodes (LEDs) has, in some ways, made individual fixtures less important when compared to what a collection of fixtures can offer as a networking platform.

Such rethinking is critical because manufacturers need creativity to add value to long-living LED products that rarely need replacing and could quickly become commoditized. With features such as zero-to-100-percent dimming and color-temperature shifting into the mainstream, companies now are looking at the large-scale lighting upgrades going on in commercial and office buildings, along with city streets, as an opportunity to pivot their business focus from manufacturing lamps and fixtures to facilitating data gathering and communications. In fact, some of the most sophisticated offerings now are using light as a communication medium.

Old systems, new tricks

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) recognized this evolution in the recent renaming of the cutting-edge research facility housed on its Troy, N.Y., campus. Funded in large part by the National Science Foundation, along with a number of leading lighting and technology companies, this national Engineering Research Center replaced the phrase “Smart Lighting” in its name with “Lighting-Enabled Systems and Applications.” According to its director, Robert Karlicek, the name change was well-warranted for a facility looking to create “lighting systems that think.”

Leaving questions of lumens and light output to the Lighting Research Center, also housed on the RPI campus, the newly retitled Lighting-Enabled Systems and Applications Engineering Research Center (LESA ERC) is dedicated to, in Karlicek’s words, “teaching old lighting systems new tricks.” Many of these tricks are technologies to help enable the multiple, connected building systems collectively labeled the Internet of Things (IoT).

“They all need sensors, and sensors need power, and what’s distributed all over buildings that has power?” he asked. “Lighting. Every IoT company in the world has their eye on lighting.”

Visible light communications (VLC), a technology that uses rapidly modulated light transmission for data communication, is a top research topic for Karlicek’s team, and it could be coming soon to a retailer near you. Retail chain Target is said to have deployed VLC systems paired with its Android app in 100 U.S. stores to provide both in-store, GPS-like maps (a feature called “geolocation”) and to beam location-based coupons and other incentives directly to shoppers’ smartphones. Sensors in store lighting fixtures can track individual phones (and their users), while product information is relayed back to the phones, through their cameras, in a process similar to that used with fiber optic cable.


"Every IoT company in the world has their eye on lighting." —Robert Karlicek, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute


“LEDs are electronic light-emitters that can be turned on and off many tens of thousands of times per second,” Karlicek said, adding that emitters are controlled by direct-current drivers that can add modulation faster than people can see.

While retail stores currently offer the best business case for this technology. Karlicek sees a far broader range of possibilities in locating visitors in complex facilities, such as hospitals, or even making life easier for a mechanical or electrical technician called in to examine a boiler or breaker panel in that hospital’s basement.

“The service history could be downloaded directly over the lighting to a tablet,” he said.

Indoor GPS offers strong ROI

For manufacturers, these technology advances are coming at an important time. Many are seeking new business models for lighting products, such as lamps, ballasts/drivers and fixtures, with lifespans that now may reach a decade instead of a year or less. Acuity Brands—which is said to be the supplier involved in Target’s pilot installations, though neither company will talk—made a large investment in this rapidly advancing market with its acquisition last year of the Boston-based startup ByteLight. This company has developed technology that uses Bluetooth low energy (BLE) communications to pinpoint a shopper’s location even without direct line-of-sight access to that user’s smartphone camera, which is what senses the light.

ByteLight has deployed VLC systems across 10 million square feet of retail space, according to Dan Ryan, the company’s cofounder and former chief executive officer and now Atlanta-based Acuity’s vice president of IoT products. He said the company is learning that the applications for such interior geolocation systems might be much broader than those for such outdoor directional aids as Google Maps.

“A lot of the initial theories were focused on the idea that there’s a blue dot on the map,” he said. 

This concept is not dissimilar from what one might find on a typical outdoor GPS application. However, retailers have come to see value in location-specific content, which could be delivered during a shopping trip or after, that is related to products a VLC system has identified to be of interest to specific customers.

“There is great interest in leveraging location-specific content to educate the consumer [like] a lot of the content you might find on a website like,” Ryan said.


"Indoor positioning systems have a dual objective: to support location-based services on the one hand and to learn about customer behavior on the other." —Jonathan Weinert, Philips Lighting


Of course, Acuity Brands isn’t alone in pursuing these opportunities. For example, Philips Lighting has run a well-publicized pilot installation at a branch of Carrefour (France’s answer to a Super Walmart) for more than six months. According to Philips spokesperson Jonathan Weinert, the company has a number of projects deployed or in development for other European customers, though information on possible U.S. installations is still under wraps.

Unlike Acuity’s BLE-enabled system, Philips’ approach relies entirely on a line-of-sight connection with a customer’s phone, which could be particularly effective, as the company now has a patent pending for its method of encoding the data transmitted in LED light waves.

More than just providing a vehicle for in-store directions and promotions, Weinert sees such installations as a research tool for retailers. Marketing departments can aggregate anonymous data from hundreds or thousands of shoppers to create bottom-line improvements.

“Indoor positioning systems have a dual objective: to support location-based services on the one hand and to learn about customer behavior on the other,” he said. “Anonymous data of special interest to retailers includes customer routing through the store, dwell times per visit and at specific locations … and statistics on requests for help from sales associates.”

Networking in the great outdoors

VLC is less useful in exterior lighting applications because there’s too much competing, uncontrolled light in the environment. However, manufacturers still see tremendous opportunity in working with the enormous number of roadway and area fixtures installed across the United States, especially as many municipalities now are undertaking large-scale LED upgrade programs. Building value-added security and networking capabilities into new products can mean higher near-term sales and the possibility of an ongoing income stream providing monitoring and other services for municipal customers.

In these applications, the fixtures become a platform—in both a literal and figurative sense—for mounting cameras and other sensors, along with communications equipment, to create networks for surveillance and other security functions, among other uses. Among the fastest growing sensor options in this category is gunshot detection. Hubbell Lighting’s Spaulding Lighting division launched a version of its Cimarron fixture equipped with an Internet-protocol (IP) camera and gunshot detection (in partnership with TOTUS Solutions) in late 2014.

“It really becomes a platform to all our customers to do what would never have been possible to do five to 10 years ago,” said Andy Miles, director of product marketing for Hubbell Lighting’s outdoor offerings in Greenville, S.C. “It brings a solution in a single offering that would have required multiple products and vendors, previously.”

LEDs’ controllability provides additional advantages to security applications, enabling a capability Hubbell calls “active deterrence.” Fixtures equipped with IP cameras can respond with rapid, even strobing flashes to drive intruders away and direct first responders. In addition, IP cameras can gather visual data that can be analyzed to better understand operational issues, such as people and vehicle traffic patterns.

This kind of analytics is at the heart of an effort GE Lighting recently piloted in Jacksonville, Fla., and San Diego, dubbed GE’s “Intelligent Cities” initiative. A commercial launch of compatible area and roadway fixtures, along with cloud-based intelligence, could be used to enable such future app-based services as identifying parking-space availability and traffic monitoring and rerouting.

“City planners today struggle with getting data on originations and destinations,” said Austin Ashe, GE’s Intelligent Cities product manager, Cleveland. “It’s very expensive. This is the kind of data they’ll be able to get instantly. To be able to calibrate the speed of every road, block by block, can help cities become more efficient.”

However, GE isn’t planning to develop all these capabilities on its own. Instead, the company is modeling its program on the one used by Apple and its app-development community. Just as Apple has flourished as it has evolved from a closed-system hardware maker into an open-system development community, Ashe said GE is looking more at services and less at individual parts and pieces as it charts the future for its outdoor lighting offerings.

“Where we want to go, it’s not just about the sensors in the streetlight,” Ashe said. “It’s about building an ecosystem of partners we can leverage.”

About the Author

Chuck Ross

Freelance Writer
Chuck Ross is a freelance writer and editor who has covered building and energy technologies for a range of industry publications and websites for more than 25 years. He specializes in building and energy technologies, along with electric-utility bus...

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