Comment, Education, Office

The internet of things is lighting’s chance to take things up a gear

The joy of driving automatic. If only running buildings could be this simple

I’ve driven automatic cars now for over 10 years. This is unusual in Britain and the rest of Europe, where most cars have a manual gear box, or ‘stick shift’ as the Americans call it. When I first went automatic my friends thought I’d gone mad, or entered premature retirement, as automatics had a reputation for being slower to accelerate, so it wasn’t quite as easy to overtake the spotty teenager sitting in front of you in his one-litre-engined Vauxhall  (that’s Opel to our continental readers, Holden to the Australians).

There are lots of things to like about automatics. Not developing a deep vein thrombosis from pumping away at the clutch pedal every ten seconds in deathly slow London traffic, for instance, and always having a hand free to drink a coffee or open up a Ginsters pie.

Now, imagine for a moment that manuals had never existed and everyone had always driven automatics. Then imagine what it would be like if, one day, automatics were taken away and you had to drive manual. Those two simple ‘stop’ and ‘go’ pedals are replaced with three pedals and a stick. When you speed up and slow down you have to press the pedal and move the stick, and if you get it wrong the engine will stop very suddenly. It would be like going back to steam trains on the railway, or sails on ships.

“In the future you will only need one type of sensor module as the input for your fire alarm, security system, HVAC and lighting control”

The latest technological change on everyone’s minds is the internet of things (IoT), a world where just about everything is connected to the internet. Many people are still struggling with this concept – why would you want your fridge to talk to your bathroom scales or your car to talk to your thermostat? Don’t worry about this – someone will find a reason and grow a hugely successful and all-dominating business on the back of it, which we’ll all happily be signing up for.

Imagine a world in which all of a building’s subsystems can talk to each other along a unified protocol, and integrate together in a seamless intuitive interface, reacting to the needs of users with minimal effort. The automatic gear box of buildings engineering.

Then compare this to what we have today: separated systems, different protocols and multiple wiring layers. Three pedals and a stick. This adds a huge cost to building construction and life-long maintenance. Yes, you can integrate these systems today, but this only happens on high-end projects and requires multiple system providers – many skills and little black boxes to convert one set of data to another, or connect one set of wires to another.

In the future you will only need one type of sensor module as the input for your fire alarm, security system, HVAC and lighting control. It may also act as the antenna for access to the internet via wireless or Li-Fi (data carried in light). Imagine the services you could provide. A fire alarm system that not only detects fire, but also tells where people are within a building and changes the lighting pattern to direct them out of the building via the fastest route. A security system that recognises no one is in the building and turns itself on – and can show in real time when someone has entered the building and by which route.

This technology is all very deliverable today, and sensors has got so cheap that they can be added to humble systems at very low cost.

But how do you get this stuff into buildings? If only there were a network that already covered the whole of a building… maybe one that people were already looking at upgrading in order to make energy savings, providing an opportunity to add new technology… Wait a minute…

There we have it: lighting’s role mapped out as the essential element in the IoT (here’s one company that’s already making a play to be at the heart of this). If sensors are added to each and every light fitting, then you don’t need some of the complex elements found in sensors today. A room covered by 100 separate sensors provides much better accuracy than a complex PIR trying to cover a vast floor area. 

OK, so there are a few barriers to overcome in peeling away years of standards from legacy systems, and ensuring that one network can be secure and robust, but we already trust so many of our critical applications to the internet, that it is difficult to see any alternative emerging soon. In Europe we will probably establish a few Zhaga-style committees try to stamp out innovations,  get the industry talking as one to develop standards, while across in US they will just get on with it.

So there we have it – everyone’s a winner. Except cable salespeople, fire alarm suppliers, and security systems suppliers. Thank God we’re in lighting.