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The evolution of personal control

The buzz around a concept called the Internet of Things, or IoT, has been around for a few years, and it’s not going away anytime soon. In fact, it might be bigger than anyone ever imagined (Wired). And all that added connectivity brings with it a great deal more control.

Geoff Hammett, a product manager for lighting solutions-systems with Eaton’s Lighting Division, is excited about the evolution of personal control and what it means for the lighting industry.

These days, we crave control of everything. How does lighting fit into the picture?

When it comes to lighting, people are accustomed to using physical switches on the wall – in short, interacting with their lights in a very manual fashion. But these days, there’s a growing expectation that our lights will be responsive to our personal presence.

We’re all familiar with occupancy sensors. But what if we can detect occupancy through mobile devices? Called location-based control or geo-fencing, this technology detects your location and responds accordingly by turning the lights on or off or changing the color of the light to suit the needs or preferences of the user.

There has also been a lot of work around circadian rhythms – changing the color or brightness of the light throughout the day to align with humans’ internal “body clock.” The theory is that lighting that is programmatically responsive to individual needs and desires is better than lighting that’s manually controlled.

What are important things to consider?

Handheld controls provide a utilitarian and familiar way to manage complex systems, even for the typical user. They’re also the standard choice for commissioning purposes and for the maintenance of things that are purpose-designed, because they allow for more careful and restrictive control. For example, facility management teams don’t want individual users to have the ability to change schedules and aspects of lighting that may, in many cases, be set up and configured to meet specific code requirements. A user might want to increase a light’s brightness, but if it changes the performance of the light such that it’s no longer code-compliant, that’s a problem.

Speaking of codes, they’re a large part of our business. We develop lighting controls that allow our customers and building owners to meet codes such as California’s Title 24, which is required by California state law and requires buildings to have lighting control functions including occupancy detection and daylight harvesting, plug control and automated demand response.

Mobile apps have their own set of benefits. Most everyone has a mobile device, and these days, more control capabilities are being built into apps that will work seamlessly with equipment. In addition, downloading app software updates is faster and much easier than making changes to physical, purpose-built remote control devices. A new version of the control app software can add new functions, additional information screens and virtual button layouts without requiring the user to make any change to the mobile device or purchase new hardware. Mobile devices can also help solve what some people call “lost remote syndrome.” How many times have you misplaced your TV remote? The cost of app-based controls is typically more favorable, too, assuming you’ve justified the purchase cost of your smart device to do its many other useful functions, like texting and making phone calls!

How do LEDs and controls intersect?

LEDs aren’t more controllable than other sources, but the development of LED technology has afforded us the chance to rethink lighting “real estate” and build more sensors and controls into our lighting systems. LEDs use much less energy, and now that the cost of the electronic components of sensors and controls are falling, we’re more easily able to integrate them with LED lighting. This creates a compelling value proposition for the user. At the end of the day, the move to controlled LED lighting just makes sense. You’re saving electrical power over the life of the product, and LEDs have a much longer life span than conventional sources, greater than 20 years. And, thanks to the falling price of silicon and LED components, LEDs with integrated control and sensor technology have become much more viable. It’s not unlike what we’ve seen with microprocessors: as scale and volume increase, manufacturers can reduce their costs, in turn reducing the price of products with more features and functions.

Today’s LEDs have greater “luminous efficacy” than their predecessors. The lumens per watt performance of LED technology has grown so much that commercially available, consumer-grade LED lighting products can emulate the light produced by a 60-watt incandescent bulb, or approximately 800 lumens, using less than 10 watts of power. That’s roughly 80 lumens per watt – a number that will only continue to improve. Companies have announced LED technologies achieving 200 to 300 lumens per watt efficacy; within a few years, these LED products may become commercially available. If so, we’d only be using two or three watts of electricity to provide lighting similar to that of yesterday’s 60-watt incandescent bulbs.

Is there such a thing as too much control?

At Eaton and elsewhere across the industry, security is a big area of focus. It’s important to manage who has access to the controls and the information that is available on the control network. With sensors and cameras capturing data, privacy is another important requirement for the architecture and design of the system and all of its components. We’re committed to purpose-designing these systems such that they maintain a high degree of security and privacy, not only to prevent individual users from potentially abusing the technology, but also to prevent hackers from doing it for fun or for criminal intent.

Why are advanced controls so exciting?

I used to work in the field of video networking, and I watched that industry change with the development of technical standards and the introduction of IP networks. This allowed the industry to inexpensively develop products that deliver thousands of channels, let us watch TV on demand and record shows locally on hard disc drives, or DVRs. Similarly, high-speed data standards and IP networks facilitated the development of data modems for high-speed connections to the Internet, Voice-over-IP services and Wi-Fi wireless technologies, allowing location-free access to many of these same services using laptops, tablets and mobile devices.

Now, I’m watching the evolution of connected lighting. We can do more than just control the lights; due to favorable economics, we can also include controls and sensor technology that can be used for things like analyzing building space utilization, controlling building resources in response to user occupancy and needs, and assessing personnel locations and occupancy to improve response during safety-related or threat events. Integrating controls and sensors into connected lighting can, in turn, lead to improved resource utilization, more personalized control and safety of the user’s environment. Is a space occupied when it shouldn’t be? Is a space hazardous or unsafe for personnel? Advanced controls and analytics can provide that information, and the connected lighting network can aid in efficiently guiding the appropriate corrective action and response.

In the past, people thought of a light fixture as something that produces light and occupies space in the ceiling. But we like to think of light fixtures as real estate into which other things can be incorporated. Lights with sensors can detect the presence of people, which can save energy and determine whether spaces are being used efficiently. By more efficiently managing spaces, building managers can, for example, change how they run their HVAC systems to ensure they’re not heating or cooling unoccupied rooms. Some companies may use data gathered from controls systems to physically close off or reallocate areas that aren’t being used, thus reducing the cost of heating, cooling and lighting in these spaces.

We can and should use today’s networks as connections to information resources, for data analytics and cognitive computing with a natural language user interface like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Echo/Alexa and IBM’s Watson. Occupancy detection is just the beginning. We can leverage these same networks to detect daylight, measure air quality and even capture images for security and other applications. In a way, we’re spreading the Internet one light fixture at a time, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.