The latest revelation, driven by the rise of the Internet of Things, is that lighting infrastructures are omnipresent and reach us almost everywhere we go, suggesting that smart lighting infrastructures, enriched with sensors, could develop into super highways for big data and become a powerful driver for change in this world at more levels than we can imagine right now. And last but not least – at the dawn of a more circular, sustainable economy – intelligent lighting should also make efficient use of energy.
So, mainly driven by technological advancements, intelligent lighting design has become a case of multi-disciplinary expertise and regardless of how the trends will play out, this will heavily impact the role of lighting designers.
What determines the level of lighting intelligence?
So what makes light intelligent? You could interpret the level of intelligence as an expression of the number of sensors and controls in a lighting network and its capacity to distribute data to a lighting management system. In principle, the more sensors there are in a network monitoring the environment – lux, motion, temperature or sound sensors – the more data there may be available for the management system to accurately determine a current need for light. The sensors and controls, together with the network and the management system, form an intelligent lighting platform, with exponential options to determine its behaviour. The sky seems to be the limit. However, in practice it is fair to say that there are still some (technological) challenges to overcome and some very conscious choices to make.
A paradigm shift for lighting designers
Let us start with the basics. Life as we know it, cannot exist without light. The impact of light on our health, safety and sense of well-being is a significant one, as is the influence of a lighting designer. The good news is that intelligent lighting technology has widened the lighting designer’s sphere of influence significantly, creating a whole new pallet of options to work with. The downside could be that the options are so mind-boggling, and all that glitters is certainly not gold, so lighting designers should be able to properly assess the required technology in order to apply it to serve a purpose – by design, so to speak.
The starting ground for designing lighting is to properly evaluate the purpose of the light to be applied within the context of human needs and express wishes, taking into account that this will ultimately be weighed against the (environmental) costs. So before taking off with a lighting design and its technical specifications, the first step would be to assess the possible scenarios within which it needs to deliver comfort and safety to its users, followed by determining the environmental and budget constraints of the project at hand.
The challenge herein lies mostly in the translation of ‘comfort’. People need to feel at ease with a system. An overly automated system, intended to deliver ultimate comfort, might instead give its users a sense of dependency, which can leave them feeling uncomfortable. Plus, if intelligent lighting systems are designed to be ultra-adaptive in meeting individual needs, by providing variable lux settings per office desk for example, the system can become too complex. The technical possibilities might seem limitless at first, but the more variables there are, the more complex a system will become, which increases the bug and outage rate and the risk that the user will feel subject to the intelligent lighting system, instead of the other way around. Since assumptions are always a risk, including a user group to test an intelligent lighting design can shed some light (…) on what they actually perceive as comfortable.
The second step would be to assess the necessary information (data) that the intelligent lighting system needs in order to manage the different lighting schemes and meet the system’s requirements, including energy usage. This will determine the specifications for the sensor layer which will be delivering the variable data to the management system.
The third and final phase would be to specify the necessary connectivity protocol to support the intelligent lighting design. Is there an existing infrastructure in place that can support the intelligent lights, or does the design require the flexibility of wireless communication? Do individual lights (or fixtures) need to share information with each other or is it sufficient that they communicate via a central point of control. Without going too much into the technicalities of connectivity protocols such as DALI, Zigbee and MyriaMesh, lighting designers should have a basic knowledge of connectivity protocols and their differences, because they can have a severe impact on the constraints of the design.
There are many connectivity protocols out there and it would be fair to say that each of them has its strengths and weaknesses. At the Dutch startup company Chess Wise, they have developed MyriaMesh, a wireless connectivity protocol which delivers a flexible and multi-purpose solution for intelligent lighting designs. It can add intelligence to any lighting fixture, regardless of the brand. The intelligence of the protocol also allows for a multitude of sensors to deliver data to the system. Finally, in a MyriaMesh network, all the lighting fixtures are equally intelligent, which adds to the resilience of the lighting system as a whole.
The abstraction levels of an intelligent lighting platform could ultimately look like this (fig.1). At the centre the people – the users and decision makers – who decide on the needs and the constraints of the lighting platform. They are surrounded by a network enriched with one or different types of sensors, which measure the conditions in the environment and send data to the management system for analysis. The management system will then decide on a lighting scheme and send control data back to the network, resulting in a lighting scheme that matches the current situation.
At this level, the architecture of an intelligent lighting platform has been made to look simple. In practice, there may be a number of hurdles to overcome, such as construction constraints, connectivity constraints or budget constraints. More dialogue between high-tech providers and lighting designers can contribute towards finding successful and increasingly sophisticated solutions.