Light – the ideal infrastructure for the IoT?

Simon Blazey, strategic solution sales manager at Tridonic UK, discusses how lighting systems are the perfect infrastructure and basis for a successful IoT

Smart building is already a much-used phrase. It stands for the efforts to create intelligently networked, energy-efficient and sustainable buildings – always linked with new technologies and the Internet of Things (IoT). However, implementing the IoT requires a powerful and reliable infrastructure.

The IoT will produce the next generation of integrated, open architected, IP-centric smart, connected, high performance, sustainable, energy efficient, operationally efficient, green, intelligent buildings that we have been discussing for over a decade. The reason that it is important to transform our existing buildings and ensure that new buildings are constructed to these smart buildings or IoT standards is quite simple. We want to operate buildings in the most cost-effective manner, save energy, be good stewards of our resources, make sure the occupants are safe and happy, and ultimately achieve a more profitable enterprise.

The IoT allows objects to be sensed and controlled remotely across existing network infrastructures, creating opportunities for more direct integration of the physical world into computer-based systems and resulting in improved efficiency, accuracy and economic benefit. The Internet of Things has the potential to offer business value that goes beyond operational cost savings. Providers in the IoT ecosystem have a largely unexplored opportunity to develop compelling IoT solutions that explore how the ability to collect and analyse disparate data – in real-time and across time – might transform the business.

Lighting is the perfect infrastructure and basis for a successful IoT and, therefore, for a successful smart building. After all, lighting is a key part of any building infrastructure with luminaires installed throughout a building – in offices, meeting rooms and common areas. Sensors, the ‘data collectors’ for the IoT, can easily be integrated in these luminaires if the fittings are perfectly positioned to collect data and they are already connected to a power supply. Luminaires with an LED board, driver, sensor and wireless node will therefore become the solution for IoT devices for the smart building.

The demand for smart buildings is escalating the demand for smart lighting, which is playing a key role in building the infrastructure for implementing IoT applications. The market now demands the integration of high-quality lighting with controls and sensors in smart, automated building systems, as building owners, facility managers, and occupants grow more aware of the value these systems deliver. Still, questions remain as to how solid-state lighting (SSL) systems will be connected in an interoperable manner, although IP (Internet Protocol)-based communications to the end node will ultimately prevail.

State-of-the-art IoT solutions possess some major roadblocks that must be addressed before we can fully embrace networks of IoT devices beyond vertically integrated proprietary gadgets and closed ecosystems. This is particularly important for anyone specifying and installing lighting systems.

The ‘things’ part of the IoT vision typically comprises small, constrained devices that serve a narrow purpose, with limited or no interface. These could be anything from lamps with wireless connectivity for controls to battery-powered heartbeat monitors attached to your wrist. The term IoT may be fairly recent, but users wanting to connect their ‘things’ is nothing new. Back in the 1970s, people were using the X10 protocol to control their lights remotely using simple analogue-modulated signals over their power cables. Then, infrared (IR) control became popular and, eventually, radio frequency (RF).

Another less visible problem with state-of-the-art IoT devices and protocols is the need for gateways to interface with end devices. Consumers’ phones are typically used as a gateway to bridge the gap between a consumer device and an Internet service, but this is not ideal for business. In other cases, energy usage is being monitored by smart meters grouped in small networks, which interface with a gateway installed in the street to bridge the gap to a cloud server via a cellular network. However, in an office building, there may be hundreds of gateways interfacing with thousands of sensors and lights; thus, bridging islands is not a viable option.

In many cases, gateways with lightweight protocols are preferred, as IoT devices are typically constrained with limited processing power, memory, and encryption capabilities. The devices are often powered by battery or energy harvesting, so power management is crucial. All of this makes it hard to support a direct connection with the appropriate level of security.

Lighting will become the IoT backbone because lighting represents the largest network of powered devices in the world, and with the transition to LED lighting, this network is now digital, permitting easy access to power and connectivity for sensors and beacons. Embedding sensors and transceivers of various kinds into the luminaire design allows for new services beyond light such as space management, energy management, asset tracking, inventory/consumable tracking, and other capabilities that we’ve yet to imagine.

The most obvious solution is to base IoT devices on the IP, enabling them to communicate like our laptops and phones. Microcontrollers and system-on-chip (SoC) ICs have evolved quickly, so memory, processing, and security requirements are becoming less of a problem.

Experts estimate that the number of connected things in use worldwide will soar to almost 50 billion by 2020. There are already many planned or ongoing large-scale deployments of the IoT, to enable better management of cities and systems. The fact that lighting systems, by their very nature, are present in every part of the building means that the systems have the potential to be at the heart of such communication networks.

The aim of any smart building is to reduce complexity and make the processes easy to manage. The key is to approach an IoT architecture with the right vision but allow for pragmatic design steps to achieve the eventual goal; shortcuts to speed adoption should thus be approached with caution. The IoT will have huge implications to everyone and many of the technologies we use will have to evolve and adapt to support the needs of an increasingly connected world.


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