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An artistic rendering of the new light-driven wireless network in action.  (Source: Boston University)
Could the networks of the future run on light

Solid-state lighting is one of the hottest topics in the tech industry, and with good reason.  The Department of Energy is sponsoring a $20M USD "L Prize" for advances in LED lighting, a type of light which uses solid-state components (diodes).  The research is a big deal as lighting currently consumes 22 percent of the electricity in the U.S.  If the DOE accomplishes its goals of reducing lighting energy use by 50 percent, it would save billions of dollars and reduce environmental impact.

New research from Boston University's College of Engineering, funded by a National Science Foundation grant, indicates that LEDs may be not only the integral lighting component of the future, but may also form the backbone of future wireless networks.

BU Engineering Professor Thomas Little describes the new research, stating, "Imagine if your computer, iPhone, TV, radio and thermostat could all communicate with you when you walked in a room just by flipping the wall light switch and without the usual cluster of wires.  This could be done with an LED-based communications network that also provides light - all over existing power lines with low power consumption, high reliability and no electromagnetic interference. Ultimately, the system is expected to be applicable from existing illumination devices, like swapping light bulbs for LEDs."

The primary goal of the research is to develop LEDs that do exactly that -- transmit information wirelessly via controlled blinking. 

Little continues, "This is a unique opportunity to create a transcendent technology that not only enables energy efficient lighting, but also creates the next generation of secure wireless communications.  As we switch from incandescent and compact florescent lighting to LEDs in the coming years, we can simultaneously build a faster and more secure communications infrastructure at a modest cost along with new and unexpected applications."

Professor Little and his colleagues imagine LED lighting in the room being hooked up to computer circuitry, which uses existing lighting to implement a wireless network which provides data to computers, personal digital assistants, television and radio reception, telephone connections and thermostat temperature control.  Prototypes of the new network design, according to Professor Little, should start at around 1 to 10 Mbps.  Better yet, bandwidth would be greater than in existing radio frequency (RF)-driven networks.

In the new network, each LED light bulb would act as an access point.  Another perk of the new design is beefed up security.  Unlike RF networks, the new signal would not pass through walls or other opaque objects.  This would help prevent snooping and connection theft.  The new system would also use much less power than RF, as solid state lighting is energetically cheaper to the strong radio signals needed for wireless internet. 

The flickering which drove the network would be performed so fast the human eye could not see it.  The network would ideally be able to operate outdoors as well as indoors.  The first test deployment may be outdoors, with a likely candidate being car interiors.  Professor Little continues, "This technology has many implications for automobile safety.  Brake lights already use LEDs, so it's not a stretch to outfit an automobile with a sensor that detects the brake lights of the car in front of it and either alerts an inattentive driver or actively slows the car."

While the technology seems very promising, one quandary is how to make the communication bidirectional.  Professor Little and his team have not elaborate on this tricky point yet in the initial press.  In order to send data requests, you would need a means of receiving light from devices such as cell phones or laptops, however, you ideally would want to avoid having to have a bright blinking transmitter on your device walls covered in sensors. 

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Not impressive
By mindless1 on 10/7/2008 4:27:51 PM , Rating: 2
We slowly see implementation of LED lighting today, some would call it fast implementation but when I go to someone's home, odds are high they have zero LED lights besides possibly a night-light or car tail lights.

What's slowing the adoption? The higher cost even though the design can be fairly simple as mere LED array plus heatsink plus switching PSU plus housing. Now here is a suggestion we add a significant % more cost to modulate the LEDs for both TX/RX, which also limits the ranges in which the switching supply itself can operate as well as what kind of diffusion these lights can have - just as with a lightbulb, or actually moreso since typical consumer light bulbs are often frosted, you don't want LED light cast directly within your field of vision.

In the past and now I can get a wifi router for about $10-15 after a rebate. It typically consumes about 4W. If the increased cost and development time of wireless links via LEDs keeps people from implementing them only a small period longer then is more power wasted before the conversion, and contrary to the overly simple idea that light transmission uses less power than radio, with radio you can have one access point for a larger area instead of a much larger number of LED access points which cumulatively may use as much or more power.

I'm not against use of LED access points as separate modules independant of area lighting, that seems the best solution as the redundancy of having an extra LED could be a penalty of only a few dozen mA, but remember that can still create visible light if this alternative is chosen so it still can be part of the room lighting power budget, but rather in a way that does not slow development of mainstream room area lighting nor drive it's cost up and remember that the LED access points will always be checking for communication even when there's nothing around to communicate with. They could operate in a low power sleep mode but still you have some active electronics using power where they otherwise wouldn't.

Someday this tech will work well and be a good idea, there are the positive aspects the article mentioned and more that I left out when mentioning the above, but today we need to forget about getting fancy with LED lighting and focus on just budgetizing it to the point where the average joe starts using it, let alone replaces enough fixtures that the hypothetical power savings are actually realized.

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