Navigant Research Blog

Li-Fi Turns Light into a Data Stream

— July 13, 2014

Since Harald Haas demonstrated the ability of light-emitting diode (LED) lights to transmit data during a TED Talk in 2011, the promise of Li-Fi (short for light fidelity) has received a lot of attention.  As researchers develop faster and faster communication speeds, the application of the technology to the building space appears both realistic and attractive.  Commercially, General Electric (GE) has demonstrated the viability of the technology through its launch of LED-based communication for retail environments.  Li-Fi could be cheaper and consume less energy than existing wireless communication technologies that rely on radio frequencies (RF).  Smart buildings, which require a dense and flexible control network, present an interesting application for a Li-Fi deployment, particularly with the increased adoption of LED lighting.

Non-Interfering

Li-Fi seems to be a compelling alternative to the RF technologies that are currently in use today.  First, the RF available to building automation is crowded.  Moreover, as the Internet of Things becomes more pervasive, more and more communication nodes will further saturate the environment.  RF travels through walls.  So, a node in an adjacent room will be competing for detection.  But Li-Fi is impervious to this problem.  Since the range of any individual Li-Fi node extends only to the nearest wall, the communication in one room will never interfere with other communication in a different room.  In other words, the inherent limitations on Li-Fi range are an ideal solution for saturated networks.  Moreover, more than just crowding, interference from microwaves and other devices can be a problem, particularly in medical environments.  Li-Fi is immune to RF interference.

Security is another area of concern for wireless communication.  It’s relatively easy to hack a Wi-Fi network.  Li-Fi, on the other hand, has a shorter range and requires line-of-sight.  As a result, it is inherently more secure.  You have to be within the range of the transmitter and receiver, shifting the threat of IT security to more manageable physical security.

The Bad News

The technology faces some serious technical challenges before widespread adoption, though.  In addition to enhancing security, the line-of-sight requirement also presents challenges.  Though Li-Fi is immune to RF interference, it is susceptible to interference from a more ubiquitous source: the sun.  Receivers placed close to windows could be rendered ineffective.  Additionally, lighting in buildings is typically designed to be unidirectional, from the light source to the space to be illuminated.  But communication networks must be bidirectional to both send and receive data.   In order to create a Li-Fi network, lights would need to be installed to point at each other, which is at odds with their intended functionality.

Despite these drawbacks, Li-Fi could overcome several of the barriers facing wireless.  Though most of the current buzz focuses on visible light communication, using infrared light could solve many of the hurdles.  Windows can be designed to block infrared light but allow visible light to pass, eliminating problems of solar interference.  Infrared also has greater potential throughput of up to 5 to 10 gigabits per second.  Overall, the challenges facing Li-Fi are no greater that the challenges facing RF.  The technology appears to be several years away from successful deployment in building automation.  But it’s coming.

 

Lighting Systems Seek Simplicity

— May 6, 2014

Many of the barriers to broader adoption of intelligent lighting control systems are quickly being overcome.  Lower prices for light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which are an excellent fit for intelligent controls, are leading to wide-scale replacements with that lamp technology.  The price for the control systems themselves has also come down dramatically, especially for wireless communication systems that remove the need for potentially costly rewiring work.  The lack of open standards – another previous barrier to lighting control systems – has also been largely addressed by a range of protocols that allow customers to choose one company’s luminaries, another company’s sensors, and perhaps even a third company’s controls with less fear of incompatibility.

One of the largest remaining barriers in this market is complexity.  The complexity of networked and smart lighting control systems limits adoption at every stage of a lighting project.  Architects, engineers, and lighting designers must be well-versed in the technology and the available options in order to select and design a system to fit a given project.  Networked controls also often require a specialist for installation, rather than simply an electrician.  Finally, building owners and managers must be trained in the operation of complex systems and have reasonable concerns that any problems or required changes could become costly.

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Lighting controls companies are well aware of the complexity problem and have released a slew of solutions to help reduce the obstacle.

Cree launched the SmartCast system in February, which allows luminaries enabled with the technology to automatically connect with each other to form a control network that attempts to maximize energy savings based on conditions in the space.  The setup involves the touch of a single button, a feature that Cree has trademarked as OneButton.

Enlighted offers intelligent sensors designed to be connected to individual luminaries, packaged with the local intelligence to control the light based on occupancy, available daylight, and even the type of work being done in the area.  These controllers can communicate back to gateways so that lights can be remotely monitored and managed.  However, by building the sensors and intelligence into each luminary, Enlighted has removed the need for groups of luminaries and sensors to coordinate with each other.

Auto-Lit

Daintree Networks addresses the complexity problem through an emphasis on open standards, so that its control system can work with lighting products from multiple manufacturers and customers can more easily mix and match products from various companies.  The company also describes its mesh communication network as self-healing, meaning that any disruption to communications is automatically rerouted.

These companies and many more are trying to address the problem of complexity in lighting controls.  A scan of company websites from Philips Lighting to Acuity Brands to Cooper Industries include words and phrases like “simplify the installation,” “quick-configured,” and “design freedom.”  Simpler systems will help convince building managers that they can achieve the benefits of energy savings and improved monitoring without the risks of complicated reconfigurations or incompatible equipment in the future.  And, in the majority of small- and medium-sized buildings that have no dedicated manager, lighting control systems that configure and run themselves without any intervention must be made available.

 

Green Light for Roadway Lighting Controls

— May 5, 2014

Numerous cities around the world have begun replacing outdoor lights with light-emitting diodes (LEDs), though many of them have not been able to take advantage of the superior dimming capabilities of LED lighting or the inherent controllability that this semiconductor-based lighting technology offers.  In order to dim an LED light, a control device must have direct access to that LED’s driver.  This means that the manufacturer of the LED luminaire must either integrate its own controls or partner with a controls company to allow for communications between the driver and the controller.  A city customer that wants smart dimming controls must, therefore, select both fixture and controls vendors up front, limiting its options and making the decision much more complicated.

Fortunately, this roadblock has recently been removed.  With the publication of NEMA/ANSI standard 136.41 in February, manufacturers now have a single standard to follow so that any company’s controller will work with any other company’s luminaire.  Products that meet this standard are quickly coming into the market.  TE Connectivity has begun manufacturing the receptacle and contacts that provide interconnection between a compliant controller and a luminaire, giving luminaire manufacturers an easy means to produce compliant luminaires.

We Approve

Big lighting players such as Acuity Brands and Philips have come out with products that meet the new standard, and even smaller decorative outdoor lighting companies, such as Sternberg Lighting, are committing to offering compliance with the standard as an option on new products.  The controls companies themselves have been very enthusiastic, with CIMCON Lighting announcing compliant product lines immediately after the standard was published and a representative from Sensus describing the publication to me as a watershed event.

Navigant Research expects that adoption of this NEMA standard will become so widespread in outdoor lighting fixtures that many cities will install compliant products without even specifically requesting them.  Those cities will then be free to add smart networked controls at any point in the future by simply plugging in compliant controllers into the top of lights.  This freedom, both in the timing of the controls installation and in the choice of what products to use, is expected to lead to rapid growth in the number of networked systems.  In a recently published report titled Outdoor and Parking Lighting Systems, Navigant Research forecasts that revenue from the sale of intelligent control devices will increase at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18% through 2023, and that revenue from the sale of controls software will increase at a CAGR of 43%.  That growth will be driven by a number of factors, including falling LED prices and increased expectations for monitoring and control, but it will be facilitated along the way by standardization efforts such as this one.

 

Lighting-as-a-Service Hints at Major Industry Shifts

— January 31, 2014

In November, Philips signed a 10-year performance lighting contract with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) to provide lighting-as-a-service in 25 WMATA parking garages.  Over 13,000 lighting fixtures are being upgraded to a custom-designed LED lighting solution at no upfront cost to WMATA.  The cost of the project will be paid for through the estimated $2 million in energy and maintenance savings the project will yield per year.  Energy usage is expected to be cut by 68%, or 15 million kWh, per year.  Philips will also monitor and maintain the system during the life of the contract, allowing WMATA to redirect approximately $600,000 annually in labor and material resources.  As part of the 10-year maintenance contract, Philips will also reclaim and recycle any parts of its system that must be replaced.

The implications of this business model are significant.  WMATA gets a top-of-the-line lighting system essentially free.  In fact, if Philips charges anything less than $2 million per year (or whatever the annual savings are), WMATA is making money on the project.  Throw in the maintenance contract and how could a potential customer say no?  The only potential downside would be if Philips welches on its customer service agreement and fails to perform adequate maintenance.  This would be a problem for Philips as well, as it would mean that the firm underestimated the resources needed to fulfill the maintenance contract and is missing its cost goals.

Reuse, Recycle, Re-Profit

According to Philips, lighting-as-a-service (or Pay per Lux) is their model moving forward, and that could be extremely disruptive.  While the fine details of the agreement have not been made public, it’s likely that WMATA agreed to pay Philips a percentage of the actual energy savings per year (compared to WMATA’s energy usage in a base year) as opposed to a flat rate.  This incentivizes Philips to maximize the efficiency of the system, which benefits everyone.  In that way, WMATA is truly paying for performance.

Echoing the theme of my last blog on cradle-to-cradle circular economies, Philips could also capture cost savings by recycling the lighting components, thereby turning a waste stream into a supply line.  Even if the upfront savings are small, they would provide an incentive for Philips to streamline the recycling process by designing products for disassembly, using fewer raw materials, and expanding relationships with recycling facilities, perhaps even acquiring them.  Then, if lighting-as-a-service starts to gain traction and the amount of material being recycled gains critical mass, the savings could become very real.

An efficient recycling process could lead to other opportunities.  For example, Philips could provide upgrades to WMATA’s system, increasing energy savings and customer satisfaction, more frequently and at lower cost without creating any waste.  If no material is being wasted, suddenly planned obsolescence doesn’t sound so bad.

I suspect any company that offers a technology that can pay for itself with annual savings is taking a long look at this business model.  If not, they should be.  The residential solar industry is already capitalizing on a similar leasing model.  If leasing and maintenance contracts become the norm in these industries where savings pay for the product, and customers begin paying for light as opposed to a lighting fixture, it could mean that hardware companies like Philips and Samsung will have to differentiate themselves more on customer service than on their physical products.

 

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