Focus: Whose Light Is It Anyway?

Lighting consultant John Aston asks if the Internet of Things can compromise the primary function of a lighting system?

Images: Shutterstock

The 21st century has brought three major challenges to the lighting sphere. At the turn of the century we first learned about the non-visual effects of lighting and the third receptor in the eye, and the implications for the human circadian system. Next came solid-state lighting, namely LEDs, and now we have the Internet of Things. All of these present lighting with threats and opportunities, new ways of doing things and a need to understand their impact.

The first, and obvious, question to ask is: what is the Internet of Things? We tend to think of the internet as something that connects our computers, smart phones and, more recently, control devices and sensors. These last items are taking us into the realm of connected things; hence the IoT. However, the idea of connected things may have a far-reaching impact on lighting simply because we now use LEDs as a light source.

To understand why this might be, it is useful to have a look at how we have developed lighting and control systems for the non-domestic built environment in the past 30 years or so. The lighting controls industry can now offer building-wide, networked systems that can address each light and sensor individually, with luminaire designs now integrating much of the intelligence into their electronics.

The result of this development work has been the introduction of a network that penetrates almost every part of a modern building; a fact not lost on those looking to manage other building services or interested in data collection.

The lighting system is now seen as being able to provide the infrastructure for a building-wide, multifunction network with the potential to offer more than a lit environment. The introduction of LED technology has added to the attraction of this network because it is possible to use an LED to transmit data reliably and at very high speeds. This raises our main question: can the IoT compromise the primary function of a lighting system?

Our historic approach to lighting design has been to provide the right light, in the right place and at the right time. Yes, there have been changes in the way we do this; debates as to how we apply appropriate metrics, as well as both the quantity and quality of light that should be provided in any given situation. We do not pretend that we know all the answers, or that this is an exact science; lighting designers do, though, strive to deliver the best solution based on available knowledge and equipment.

The object of a lighting system is the provision of a comfortable, effective and efficient environment for people, whatever the application might be. These criteria should be the sole determinant of the choice and location of the lighting equipment in any application. If the intention is to include the IoT in a lighting installation – as a specified requirement for a project – there is a chance that the choice and location of lighting equipment might be dictated by other priorities.

It is possible to consider the introduction of the IoT to lighting as just another step in the progress of control systems, only now using the internet model and allowing the interaction of personal devices (for example, smart phones) with the lighting. The use of familiar protocols such as Dali, DMX, KNX, Zigbee and others would still be possible because the whole ethos of the internet concept is the ability to link networks.

TCP (as in TCP/IP) is an abbreviation for transmission control protocol and it is the basic communication language of the internet; through gateways it facilitates all the device connections we are familiar with today.

On its own, then, IoT might facilitate and develop the abilities of lighting controls to be more personal, more able to adopt new strategies and all at a lower cost with, potentially, better user interfaces. The potential trouble for the lighting element comes when the attractions of this pervasive network are recognised.

Just as it allows the inclusion of the lighting controls protocols so IoT also permits the connection of BACNET and other BMS and building services systems’ communications. It simplifies the business of interconnection and even interoperability, often without compromising the original abilities of the separate systems. Even extending the links to other building services – often already done – is not a threat to lighting.

The possible problem surfaces when there is a desire to go further into ‘location-based services’ and the gathering of ‘enterprise data’. The ability of LEDs to carry information as well as to deliver light offers businesses the opportunity to guide people around buildings or download location-specific data. Sensors and other links might tell businesses about movement patterns, numbers present or where specific individuals are located. Some of these functions might, conceivably, require the building designer to specify particular products or equipment, and this is where a compromise with the primary lighting function might occur. Or, maybe, the optimum position for a light fitting to meet the wider purpose is not the ideal place for the lighting designer.

The wider abilities and potential of lighting explains the interest of the likes of Apple, Amazon, Cisco and others, informing their acquisition strategies and partnerships.

It is conceivable that established lighting businesses might vanish into the modern internet-based global behemoths, and lose the passion and knowledge we have built over the past 100 years and more.

Like most disruptive technologies IoT will be both a threat and an opportunity; we can only make it the latter by understanding all the issues surrounding the changes in technology.

In the longer term the whole lighting industry has an opportunity to be involved in developing lighting systems that become an essential part of a business enterprise, forming a core service network that creates useful data, links systems and delivers greater, comfort, productivity and efficiency. We live in exciting times but let’s not be carried away by hype and always be mindful that technology is our servant and not our master; nor is it to be used just because it is there.

We may have already opened a pandora’s box but we must keep our eye on the benefits that can be derived from good lighting, and make sure that all the other features, as well as those new entrants to the lighting industry, do not forget its purpose and its value to our wellbeing.

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