9 cool things lights can do thanks to the internet of things

Tracking people, warning of danger, interacting with your TV... is there anything today's lights can't do?

If it sounds like a buzzword, don’t be deceived. The market for the internet of things (IoT), or internet-connected objects, is exploding, and it’s going to change the lighting industry, our homes and our cities, in very big ways. Some of them are undeniably gimmicky, while others do really useful things in the background. Here are nine really cool things lighting can do thanks to the internet of things.


1   Monitor urban air quality
The ubiquity of streetlighting makes it the ideal platform on which to add hardware to do new and useful things in the urban environment – like monitor air quality. Add sensors that can measure airborne particulates, and devices to report its findings via a mobile data network, and your streetlights become a distributed network to monitor the environmental health of the city. This is one example where the height of streetlights is especially handy, so sensors measure the ambient air quality rather than snorting nitrogen dioxide from exhaust pipes. There’s the expense of adding that hardware, but a massive saving on providing poles and power supplies, which the streetlight already provides. It doesn’t have to be air quality here – the key point is that lighting is the perfect Trojan Horse for IoT applications (see point 9, below) – especially those using sensors.


The internet of things is bringing everything online – including lights

2   Keep an eye on the masses
A wireless lighting network at Newark Airport in the US can monitor the movement of people and vehicles. This has numerous applications (parking, sending promotional coupons…) but the main advantages for the airport are surveillance and security. City authorities, too, are beginning to use lights to keep an eye on the general public.


3   Improve parking
If you need an incentive to hook your streetlights up to the internet, how about clamping down on illegal parking? Siemens has developed a system which uses streetlight-mounted radar to detect cars, motorbikes and even bicycles which are parked where they shouldn’t be, and automatically alert the authorities. If that sounds like all carrot and no stick, the same technology, paired with a smartphone app, can tell drivers where parking is available, even sensing the size of the gap to check it’s big enough. There’s just the tiny circular problem of needing to find a place to park to be able to use the app legally to find a place to park. The gadget also logs data, building up a picture of which parking spaces are most in demand – information that could prove handy to planners. In time, the technology could be paired with a mobile payments system to make it quicker and easier to pay for parking.


4   Direct traffic
In the smart city, systems that might once have worked separately can now share data and interact. Combine cameras and sensors in streetlights with your traffic lights and signage, and you have the means to monitor traffic, regulate flow, and, if necessary, redirect traffic. Flir’s Traficam uses camera technology to detect the presence of traffic, log traffic data, and stream video. Mounted at road junctions, the system can be used to adjust the cycle of traffic lights in real time, reducing waiting times for drivers. Over 3,000 sensors have been installed in Moscow in a bid to ease the city’s crippling traffic jams.


5   Demand attention
If every light fitting has its own network IP address, facilities managers may as well use that to their advantage. IoT lighting enables remote monitoring of lighting installations for lamp failure, emergency lighting faults and potentially even light output depreciation. That way facilities managers can make the call on when to go into the building to perform maintenance. And by the way, there’s nothing to say you’d need a human to do the remote monitoring. Sure, this calls for some extra gubbins in the light fitting, but in time, the cost should easily be offset by the efficiency gains in maintenance procedures.

One of the coolest things that a smart lamp can do is talk to your TV, so your lighting complements what’s happening on screen”

6   Make TV immersive
One of the coolest things that a smart lamp like the Philips Hue can do is talk to your TV, so your lighting can complement what’s happening on screen. Philips has programmed its Hue LED bulbs to automatically flash, dim, change colours and pulsate along with shows – the first show to benefit being the Syfy series 12 Monkeys. Viewers tune in, sync the lights with the TV using a smartphone app, and sit back. Philips described the development as ‘the world’s first-ever immersive lighting experience for an entire season of original series programming’. For Philips, it’s an extension of its Ambilight technology, where lights around the edges of Philips TVs glow different colours based on what’s on screen. But that was limited to the lights on your TV, and was simply based on whatever colours were on the screen – now the lights can respond more dramatically to cues set by the show’s producers. When the hero steps into a darkened room, your room is dark too. When the alarm sounds, the red lights flash in your room as well as on screen. The same technology can be used to make videogames more immersive too.


7   Team up with your smoke alarm
Who would have thought a smoke alarm could be a desirable consumer product? And yet the Nest Protect is one of the hottest gadgets around (Google certainly thinks so – it bought the company for $3.2 billion). Now lighting is part of Nest’s plan too. Philips’ Hue wireless lamps have joined the ‘Works With Nest’ programme to interact with Nest’s products. This means when your Nest alarm senses smoke, your lights can come on full automatically, or when presence detectors spot an intruder, they can flash to warn you of danger. Lights are just one type of device that Nest can now talk to – others include kitchen appliances, phones and even lawn sprinklers. 

Data generated by lights could be used for plenty of purposes that go well beyond the person who created the data”

8   Power services based on aggregated data
If light fittings are equipped with sensors and connected to networks, they’re going to generate a lot of data. What do we do with it? Of course, it’s useful to the facilities manager of the building in question. But the data could also be used for plenty of purposes that go well beyond the person who created the data. If car park lights are monitoring traffic flows, the local highways authority might be interested. Energy use patterns are bound to be of interest to energy providers. And if you’re luminaires are equipped with temperature sensors (why not), well, that may be useful to someone too. As the custodians of this data, building owners will be in a position to trade it with others who want it.


9   Provide a basis for others to build on
Lighting is the Trojan Horse of the internet of things – it’s the connected network that’s already there in the ceiling of every building – in many cases, with sensors already hooked up. As Sam Woodward of Lutron puts it, lighting has its ‘beach towels on the ceiling’. All these clever new IoT companies looking for a network of powered devices in buildings around the world, positioned with good lines of sight for cameras and occupancy sensors… look no further, it’s already there: the lights


  • Internet of Things-based lighting control, data capture and security will be a key theme of LuxLive 2017, which takes place on Wednesday 15 November and Thursday 16 November at ExCeL London. For more information, and to register for free, click here.