(Issue: April 2020)

Internet of Lights

By Craig DiLouie, CLCP, LC

By now, most lighting pros are familiar with the basic promise of the Internet of Things (IoT): Driven by miniaturization, technological advances, and falling costs in microprocessors, sensors, and wireless communications, we now have the ability to connect and streamline building systems and sensors in an intelligent network to gain the benefits of automation, sensor-driven data, and data-driven services. 

The lighting industry was quick to see a central role for the luminaire in this vision. Lighting is used everywhere in the built environment, is always powered, is evenly spaced, and typically doesn’t move or suffer damage. The installation of LED lighting in existing buildings provides an opportunity to install onboard sensors and connectivity as part of the retrofit. 

While the luminaire offers valuable potential real estate for the IoT, networked lighting control also has a role to play both as a potentially IoT-friendly building system and as a limited application of the IoT itself. Driven by maturing wireless networking, simpler commissioning, and growing digitalization, networked lighting control counts wireless communication, bandwidth, intelligence, and software as core competencies. With these capabilities, networked lighting control can do much of what the IoT can do, which is programmable control, data sharing between devices, measuring, monitoring, and performance optimization. This gives us an Internet or Intranet of Lights, or, put another way, IoT Light or Lite. 

The IoT has a number of challenges as it struggles in its infancy, one of which is the customer has yet to decide with the IoT means to them. Because few customers are exactly alike, the IoT will not be a single monolithic market. In some projects, the lighting control system may provide the needed benefits, while in others, it may serve as part of a larger solution in an overarching IoT system. It’s all about talking to the customer and discovering what they need. 

For lighting management companies, all this brings a degree of uncertainty. Some may wish to look for opportunities that most easily actionable, pairing the value a networked lighting control system can provide to projects wanting no more, no less. This may involve a conversation that goes beyond energy into data. Below are five applications that are actionable today with advanced luminaires and networked controls. Together, they can provide a compelling business case for networked controls, and can offer value-adds for a light as a service contract. 

Energy optimization. This is typically the starting point of the conversation and an opportunity to present a hard ROI. The networked lighting control system can automate lighting operation based on programmable profiles, fine-tune control strategies to optimize savings, and report this information for software viewing. Further opportunities may be gained through integration with other building systems, such as the HVAC system adjusting setpoints based on occupancy status. 

Space utilization. Many large property management firms use integrated workplace management systems. By sending occupancy data to a server whenever a change is detected to build historical usage profiles, a networked lighting control system can put this capability in the hands of smaller facilities and multisite enterprises, helping them to take the guesswork of how to optimize the use of space. Data can be used to support space planning, manage resources required to support traffic, manage meeting room availability, optimize cleaning schedules, and manage leases and utilities. 

While occupancy sensors are binary (the space is occupied or not occupied), new technologies are enabling the counting of how many people are in the space, such as Bluetooth LE beacons embedded in luminaires, which interact smart phones and count them to produce an occupancy estimate. 

Indoor positioning. Bluetooth LE can further be used for indoor positioning. By analyzing signal strength to different beacons indicating distance, the system can triangulate to determine occupant location. Occupants can use this with an app for wayfinding and locating items, while facility managers capture where and how people use the space as real-time and historical information. 

Asset tracking. Another potential real-time location services application for Bluetooth LE is asset tracking. Using an app, hospital staff, for example, can find the correct floor, area, and room to locate people and equipment, such as crash carts. This is accomplished with radio-frequency ID tags on people or equipment, which periodically transmit a signal that is caught by BLE beacons embedded in luminaires. The frequency of the signal is based on how mobile the asset is expected to be and how close to real-time the location estimate must be. 

Maintenance. Many centralized networked lighting control systems are able to monitor connected luminaires and devices, producing alarms and notifications about abnormal operation or failure along with the device’s location. This is obviously helpful for maintenance, particularly for complex applications like roadway lighting. 

Otherwise, the data can be processed by third-party apps for a variety of purposes, whatever the owner needs. 

While the IoT continues to develop, networked lighting provides immediate opportunities for building owners to optimize energy savings and realize benefits that go far beyond energy, via the Internet of Lights. 

Craig DiLouie, CLCP, LC, principal of ZING Communications, Inc., is a consultant, analyst and reporter specializing in the lighting and electrical industries, and a regular contributor to LM&M. You may contact Craig at cdilouie@zinginc.com.