What's the Next Network? The Lighting All Around You (Op-Ed)
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Hugh Martin is chairman and chief executive officer of Sensity Systems. He has a 35-year track record leading technology companies, ventures and businesses. In 2011, he was named CEO for Fortune magazine's "Executive Dream Team: The startup edition." Martin created the vision for the light sensory network and for Sensity Systems, which capitalizes on conversions to LED lighting to create high-speed, sensor-base, multiservice, open networking platforms.  This Op-Ed is part of a series provided by the World Economic Forum Technology Pioneers, class of 2015. Martin contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights

The next time you drive past a street light or walk under a light pole as you cross a parking lot to your car, take a moment to ponder this: that same lighting fixture illuminating your path might someday also keep you safer, guide you to where you're headed, lead you to an open parking space, and even make your business more profitable and your customers more loyal.

Worldwide, owners of outdoor lighting are replacing high-pressure sodium or fluorescent lamps with light-emitting diode (LED) luminaires , primarily to save on energy costs and usage. What many people don't realize is that when you upgrade to LED lighting, you're essentially putting a solid-state digital device — i.e., the same technology powering every computing and communications device in the world — into every light fixture.

Talking lights

Outdoor lighting fixtures are already connected 24/7 to power lines, and they have enclosures that are rated to withstand rain, snow, hail, wind and blazing sun. Plus, nearly anywhere there are people doing any activities of importance, there will be lighting.

This all adds up to a nearly perfect foundation for a revolution in the delivery of sensor-based networked applications and services as diverse as parking management and public safety.

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Such a "light sensory network" is different from a traditional adaptive lighting control network. Adaptive lighting control, sometimes referred to as "smart lighting," means automatically adjusting light output based on environmental conditions, such as daylight levels, or on triggers such as motion detectors. Adaptive lighting is used for scheduling, dimming and otherwise controlling LED lighting. Light sensory networks, however, can do much more than adaptive lighting:

  • Sensors. For a small incremental cost, sensors can be added to luminaires at the same time as an LED upgrade. Various sensors can detect environmental conditions, vibration, location coordinates, the presence of smoke or specific gases, physiological metrics, motion and more .
  • Networking nodes. Because LEDs are solid-state digital devices, and because lighting systems already are connected to reliable power sources, each luminaire has the important prerequisites to become a node in a powerful network. All that's needed is a wireless connection for the light to become a critical on-ramp to the Internet of Things (IoT). 
  • Applications and services. Software services can run on this lighting-based network, providing critical business intelligence using data from the sensors to deliver new, actionable insights into the operation of their business in real-time. The data these services have access to is unlike anything before — the environment is now digital and software services can read, measure, analyze to understand, and take action like never before. 

These new light sensory networks can still perform all the adaptive lighting control you'd expect from any sophisticated LED lighting control network, including advanced scheduling sequences, proximity occupancy dimming, brightening in response to motion detector input, daylight harvesting and accurate metering.

Networks of light

But in addition, a sensor-enabled light sensory network could do much more. Some examples:

  • Smart city applications running on light sensory networks could enhance public safety by monitoring the flow of movement of people, vehicles, deliveries and other outdoor activities.
  • Applications for retail stores, shopping malls and central business districts could use location analytics to count pedestrian visits, determine how often shoppers visit and how long they stay in a particular store, or compare shopper traffic over time. The applications could be written to generate visitor counts by area, by time of day, and by visit frequency and duration and provide insights on how to optimize marketing dollars and increase revenue.
  • College and corporate campuses could enhance their security, asset protection and perimeter detection through applications that use sensors, video cameras and analytics technology creating a safer environment for students and employees.
  • In warehouses and distribution facilities, light sensory network applications could provide real-time asset management services by scanning radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to track goods received, shipped, sitting at loading docks and in storage dramatically increasing the accuracy and efficiency of logistics.
  • Video sensors can also be used to provide granular data about activity in the environment. Security applications written to take advantage of the video sensor data could allow managers of warehouses, hangars and similar structures to be alerted to unusual activity like the unauthorized people and vehicles activity both within and outside structures mitigating inventory loss or property vandalism.
  • Operators of parking areas — whether cities, municipalities, universities, sports and entertainment facilities, retail centers or private parking providers — could use light sensory network applications to guide drivers to open parking spots, control permit and paid parking spaces, ease traffic flow, reduce driver frustration and optimize parking operator revenues.

And these examples are just the start. Fully powered lighting systems already exist everywhere. As these lighting systems are upgraded to LED technology, they could also be integrated with powerful and increasingly affordable sensor and networking technologies to create light sensory networks.

Read more from the Technology Pioneers on their Live Science landing page. Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.