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Questions about the Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center:

  1. Why are the Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center (ERC) project and its goals significant?
  2. Is communicating with visible light new and different? Don’t we routinely use invisible light devices?
  3. So what are the real cost savings of this new wireless optical technology going to be?
  4. Is Boston University’s research focused on applications of this promising technology?
  5. Who else is working on this Smart Lighting research project? Who is the sponsor and how long is the initial project?

Why are the Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center (ERC) project and its goals significant?

Replacing existing lighting with low-power, high-efficiency LEDs is significant  due to the enormous energy savings and reduction in carbon emissions. Integrating light emitting diodes (LEDS) with optical wireless communications is a new technology paradigm that combines brighter light and longer life bulbs with ubiquitous network access provided by – the existing infrastructure – light fixtures, power lines or network cabling. The combination provides significant energy savings for lighting homes and offices, almost limitless bandwidth for multiple users, greater security and privacy and many desirable technical characteristics not offered in current radio-frequency (RF) communications, such as no electromagnetic interference. Note, in connecting the physical world with the Internet, RF and optical free-space communications will coexist, each serving complementary and, in some cases, competitive services.
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Is communicating with visible light new and different? Don’t we routinely use invisible light devices?

People have used visible light to communicate throughout history, and more recently, such as crew members sending signals between ships at sea and the first working indoor optical communications system built in 1980 by IBM in Zurich, Switzerland. The promising technology faded with the initial rise in Internet usage and the success of
local-area networking. On the wireless scene, clearly WiFi has become a dominant player in interconnecting devices with wired networks. On a smaller scale, indoor invisible optical wireless technology has been around for a decade such as the infrared signals found in TV remote controls plus laser light used in point-to-point communications between buildings. Now ERC researchers at BU are taking the next big step uniting illumination with communication to create encoded light transmissions for a wide range of new and interesting applications. For example, you might turn on a white LED ceiling lamp, from a digital wall switch, to illuminate the room and simultaneously enable your laptop, computer, PDA – even your thermostat – to wirelessly receive data transmissions. Any device bathed by light might be enabled to connect to this new visible light network.
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So what are the real cost savings of this new wireless optical technology going to be?

For starters, LED bulbs are high priced ($15 to $90 each), but that cost is considerably lower when measured against their longevity of 30,000 to 50,000 hours. By contrast, compact fluorescent (CF) bulbs cost $2 each and last about 5,000 hours versus 1,000 hours for the vanishing incandescent bulbs that are $1 each. But with volume production, and new materials and device development, these prices will fall.

LED bulbs also produce less heat, which can save on air conditioning costs, are more robust to shock and vibration, and unlike CF bulbs they contain no mercury. Communications uses the same medium – light – so there are no additional energy costs due to RF transmission circuits. Ultimately, worldwide deployment of solid-state lighting systems could result in financial savings of about $18 trillion dollars over a 10-year period.
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Is Boston University’s research focused on applications of this promising technology?

Yes. BU’s major contribution will be on LED communications and networking systems with additional work on nanomaterials and photonic crystals. The research – led by Thomas D.C. Little, PhD, Professor and Associate Chair, Graduate Studies, in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering – includes constructing two networking testbeds to study potential indoor and outdoor scenarios for both line-of-site and diffractive lighting. The indoor testbed will be a room with optical access points designed to support interchangeable LED technologies to examine a variety of modulation schemes as they emerge from the core research. An outdoor testbed would be for dual-use lighting to study how light-based communication can improve safety in transportation systems. For example, equipping vehicles with LED-based communication in headlights and brake lights supports automatic emergency braking to prevent accidents. Similar plans call for vehicles to receive traffic congestion information from roadway signs and automatically pass the warnings to other vehicles.
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Who else is working on this Smart Lighting research project? Who is the sponsor and how long is the initial project?

In addition to Boston University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of New Mexico comprise the three primary research universities who have been awarded a five year grant from the National Science Foundation with the possibility for a second five year renewal totaling $18.5 million. With anticipated contributions by industrial and non-federal cash contributions, the Smart Lighting research program could receive $50 million over 10 years.

Boston University will receive about $1 million per year including $750,000 annually in NSF funding. RPI’s research focus is on solid state devices, materials and systems while UNM will concentrate on nanomaterials and devices, supporting testbeds in bioimaging and displays.
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