The Internet of Things is an unstoppable force—perhaps the next Industrial Revolution—and the job description for design professionals is no longer limited to the quality and quantity of light
By Susannah Gilbard and Mark Loeffler
Let’s be honest, those in the lighting profession probably never dreamed of growing up to become an information technology expert. We wanted to be lighting designers. We are trained, educated and experienced in the art, craft, science and business of designing and delivering great lighting to help people see better and to make architectural and exterior environments look their best.
Now the brave new world of solid-state lighting is merging with the daunting new world of the Internet of Things. This means that lighting designers must be increasingly aware of and adept at issues of control integration, IT security and personal privacy. It is not just about the quality and quantity of light anymore. It is whether our lighting can deliver more than illumination, whether it can provide beneficial feedback and whether it can be hacked for malevolent purposes.
Already, our lighting can monitor and report its usage and maintenance requirement. It can be dimmed by voice or phone command. It can be integrated with security, audio/visual and HVAC systems. And, it can track, learn and adjust automatically for daylight conditions, circadian rhythms or occupancy patterns. Gartner, a leading research and advisory company, predicts that by 2020, IoT technology will be in 95% of electronics for new product designs. Business Insider adds more to your amazement by estimating that within the next five years, $6 trillion will be invested in the IoT practices alone. McKinsey foresees that the worldwide market for IoT lighting systems will grow to approximately $159 billion by 2020.
Ceiling-mounted indoor luminaires are perfectly positioned to serve as space monitors in buildings. Outdoor pole-mounted luminaires can also be eyes in the sky, watching people and traffic below. Having the lighting of your house, your office, your school, your hospital or your neighborhood connected to the internet via LED chip-on-board luminaires can offer a multitude of possibilities for intelligent and responsive illumination as well as data-gathering. The same luminaires, however, are potentially susceptible to malicious attacks, manipulation and data theft.
Just as we do not yet have standards for lighting control components and systems, we certainly do not have anything close to security standards for IoT devices and systems. The role of lighting designers has traditionally been to provide the best visual experience. Those responsibilities have grown to include stewardship over the energy efficiency, environmental impacts and circadian health of the people and places we illuminate.
The first step for us as lighting designers is to understand how IoT lighting works. Instead of using typical 120-277-V AC power, “smart” LED luminaires use a low-voltage DC power source. New protocols are being developed for operating these luminaires via standard Ethernet low-voltage cabling, known as Power-over-Ethernet (PoE), which conducts power and data streaming on the same cable. Using DC power, the LED luminaires also economize by eliminating unneeded internal components—such as rectifiers and drop-down circuitry—theoretically to reduce cost, energy consumption and environmental impacts.
The general expectation is that it will be initially adopted in the office environment sector, with higher education, healthcare and residential applications not far behind. The often used LED overhead luminaire of just yesterday will soon transform itself into an advanced platform of intelligence, usefulness, convergence and efficiency. This concept works now for developer-built projects with relatively generic lighting layouts, using typical 2-ft by 2-ft and linear recessed luminaires for which manufacturers have already focused on adding the necessary sensors and on-board electronics.
While cost savings are hailed due to “no wire and conduit” between fixtures, so far PoE has not really proven to be less costly as promised. Theoretical savings in electrical circuitry are spent in additional home-run cabling back to the IT racks in the LAN rooms. It also requires additional physical space in those rooms to accommodate the tremendous amount of Ethernet connections and additional connection ports to accept those cables. At the moment this cabling can only support between 50-75 watts of power each; imagine all the cables needed—every few fixtures will require cables going back through the hung ceilings or exposed cable trays back to those racks. Plus, as those rooms increase in size, additional HVAC and electrical amperage is needed to support them. It is much more complicated than manufacturers and IT enthusiasts let on.
Lighting designers must learn to design and specify fully integrated systems instead of components that a contractor will be responsible for installing and connecting according to conventional documentation. There is also the question of which contractor will do this work—the low-voltage installer or an electrician.
On the ethical side, there are legitimate worries about security and privacy. The lighting system can be seen as “Big Brother,” collecting occupancy data for undisclosed usage. It also represents a hacking target. Lighting designers are simply not prepared or trained to anticipate all the ways a “smart” lighting system could be a portal for harmful or invasive data abuse. Should they be? Is this now part of our job? Do we want this responsibility?
The Internet of Things has been called the next Industrial Revolution. It is already transforming the way businesses, governments and consumers interact with the rest of the physical world. It is as unstoppable as was the phenomenally rapid market transformation due to LED lighting. As with each disruptive emergence of new lighting technology, professional lighting designers will have to adapt and learn how to manage client expectations, especially with relation to cost savings, and new liabilities that extend well beyond our traditional concerns for a high-quality and beautiful visual experience. Expect a few collisions ahead.