Smart Lighting Evolution: From Obedient to Intelligent (Part 1)

November 10th, 2020

The term “smart lightning” is widely known nowadays, though the history of the technology dates back to the late 90’s. The first solutions were quite primitive. About 20 years ago light timers connected to outdoor lamps started to be used to turn them on and off at certain times, and this solution might have been called “smart”. 5 years later, with the introduction of motion sensors, lighting systems became more complex and evolved. Half a decade later, motion sensors have combined with daylight sensors to switch the light on only when it is dark.

Modern sophisticated smart lighting solutions have come a long way from those basic systems. Let’s dive into the history of the technology to discover the key turning points and contemplate the bright future of smart lighting.

To begin with, let’s review some key milestones in the evolution of smart lighting: 1959 – Joel S. Spira, the founder of Lutron Electronics Company, invents the dimmer switch.

1989 — Ericsson Mobile begins the development of a “short-link” radio technology, which in 1997 is named Bluetooth.

1992Blue LED is invented by Shuji Nakamura, The University of California, Santa Barbara. A breakthrough in lighting technology. In 2014 Nakamura was awarded the Nobel Prize for the invention.

1998 — Codification of DALI, the most popular smart lighting control protocol, is made.

1999 — The term “Internet of Things” is coined by Kevin Ashton, a creator of a global standards system for RFID sensors.

2003 — The Zigbee wireless short-range protocol is standardized, a key technology for modern smart lighting solutions.

2006 — Wibree communication technology, the predecessor of Bluetooth Low Energy, is launched by Nokia.

The Prehistoric Age of Smart Lighting

While consumers enjoyed basic dimmers and timers, the DALI (Digital Addressable Lighting Interface) control protocol was the most popular wired solution for commercial projects, such as office lighting automation. The technology is quite flexible, components are cheap, and the installation is easy (if it is part of the consideration for a new building).

Nowadays it makes sense to use DALI only for new commercial buildings, otherwise the price of installation may skyrocket due to the required routing of wires through preexisting electric cable networks and reconfiguration of the existing installation. For home use, it’s not a viable option.

There are also some challenges that the industry is working to overcome when using DALI for the modern smart lighting industry:

  • It requires wires. Though with the help of gateways it’s possible to connect DALI with a wireless protocol of choice, the lighting control system will be cumbersome and not easy to manage. Moreover, the area is not standardized.
  • The commissioning process is far from simple. DALI groups are quite complicated to configure and thus require more resources for the system reconfiguration.
  • Component and network testing, as well as fault finding, is challenging.
  • Interoperability issues. DALI products might be not interoperable, even though the technology is standardized.
  • DALI doesn’t support the confirmation of the sent messages. So, if a system sends a command to turn on a light and there is a collision with another command, there is no failsafe for the light to in fact be turned on.

DALI is still quite widespread, but wired protocols are gradually stepping down from the smart lighting stage.

Back then, smart lighting solutions were cumbersome, costly, inefficient and could hardly be called smart.

And Then There Was LED…

The era of traditional incandescent light bulbs is almost over. LED has begun to revolutionize smart lighting in the last decade. Since there’s a low-voltage semiconductor inside LED bulbs, it’s quite obvious to control it digitally. LEDs work with microcontrollers exceptionally well.

The first widespread use of this combination began to emerge at the beginning of the 21st century, when color-changing LEDs took the planet by storm. Spectacular lightning installations fascinated consumers and were the first real step towards smart, and later intelligent, wireless lighting solutions.

The LED revolution has accelerated with the decreasing prices of different sensors, network chips, and microcontrollers. At the same time, humanity has stepped into the wireless and connected world.

In the next article, we will focus on a range of advantages that LED has brought to the smart lighting market and try to identify LED’s key advantages that helped to make the transition from obedient to intelligent lighting.