Need light? Try an IT company, like Mobile's school district did (MAGAZINE)

April 28, 2016
Power over Ethernet (PoE) and the IoT mark lighting's second revolution in a decade. LEDs were just a warm-up. But pioneers should be wary of arrows in the back, cautions Mark Halper.

Power over Ethernet and the IoT mark lighting's second revolution in a decade. LEDs were just a warm-up. But pioneers should be wary of arrows in the back, cautions MARK HALPER.

When facilities managers and the like look for new indoor illumination, you'd expect they'd call a venerable lighting company such as GE, Philips, Sylvania, or maybe an LED specialist like Cree or Acuity. But when Alabama's largest school district went searching, it went straight to an unconventional source: Cisco.

Yes, Mobile County Public Schools tapped information technology (IT) behemoth Cisco Systems for a pilot scheme in which Cisco is installing and connecting hundreds of LED ceiling luminaires from partner Cree at one of the district's specialist middle schools (Fig. 1).

Interested in more articles & announcements on Power over Ethernet (PoE)?

Cisco? Isn't that a $49 billion Silicon Valley networking company that specializes in things like IT switches, routers, and Ethernet protocols and cabling that brace the Internet and over which companies run private data and voice communications?

Precisely. And that puts Cisco squarely in the lighting business in today's pervasive Internet of Things (IoT) movement in which anything that can be digitized will be. Prognosticators say scores of billions of devices, machines, appliances, engines, sensors, gadgets, objects, and whatnot will soon connect to the Internet. Cisco's own estimate is that 50 billion will hook up by 2020, creating a global "digital value" to the economy of nearly $24 trillion - $9 trillion in North America alone, and $6.4 trillion each in Western Europe and Asia Pacific.

As one of the most ubiquitous "things" in the world, lights are expected to play a huge role in the IoT (Fig. 2). Tie LED lights and their housing to the Internet, add some sensors, and the possibilities abound for controlling them in innovative ways and for using them inventively in collecting, distributing, and analyzing data (see sidebar below).

FIG. 1. Pilot projects using smart, connected LED lighting - like the one underway in the Mobile County Public School System - are beginning to leverage the possibilities enabled by incorporating information technology and lighting systems.Source: Mobile County Public Schools.

Cisco is a huge IoT advocate because the IoT could spur sales of switches and routers in a way not seen since the early days of the Web. Thus, the company has a ready-made technology to pull lighting into the realm of digital connectivity: Power over Ethernet (PoE). PoE runs standard Ethernet cable to LED fixtures, and uses those cables to carry both data and electricity to them. It's the same radical scheme that pushed out old practices in telecommunication from commercial offices and replaced them with voice over IP (VoIP) starting some two decades ago.

"Every light becomes a sensor, a point to get valuable data, bring it back, and really enable a new set of experiences and amazing things," said Tony Shakib, vice president of Cisco's Internet of Things vertical business unit. "The ceiling becomes an information highway." Indeed, Shakib addressed this theme during his Plenary Session keynote at Strategies in Light 2015.

Double play: Data and electricity

In lighting, the advantages are twofold. Not only does data connectivity improve the value of lighting assets well beyond simple illumination, but the Ethernet cabling saves huge electrical costs on new construction and major retrofits, because it eliminates the need for conventional higher-voltage wiring and all the attendant costs of using certified electricians. Ethernet can handle the low voltages that work with LED lighting, a technology already well known for saving enormous energy.

While PoE lighting is, in its own right, more costly than standard LED lighting and far more expensive than conventional fluorescent office lighting, its added benefits, mixed with other IoT lighting schemes, could mark the biggest overhaul of the lighting industry since the commercial advent of the LED lamp 10 years or so ago. Ironically, an industry that did not change much in its first century since the invention of the incandescent bulb could now be heading toward its second major upheaval in a decade. That might all sound like a vendor pitch. But pioneering users are beginning to embrace it.

"If they can get this down to where it's not expensive, I can't see how it won't be transformative," said David Akridge, executive manager of information technology at the Mobile County Public School System. The 58,000-student district is currently installing hundreds of 4×2-ft LED troffers from Cisco partner Cree at Clark-Shaw Magnet School, a middle school specializing in science and technology. At the time of this writing, Akridge hoped to have around 150 of the luminaires in by the end March, and a total of more than 300 soon thereafter across 22 classrooms, three computer labs, and a collaboration room, for around 850 students.

Fascinating rhythm

One of the main benefits Akridge hopes for is to vastly improve light quality by tailoring light colors and color temperatures (CCT) in a way that can better fit with students' circadian rhythms and which can induce alertness or relaxation at the right time, thus improving their ability to learn.

Academic studies are increasingly showing that properly controlled lighting and lightwaves can positively impact students; Akridge can't wait to try it out. He'll be able to program and alter lighting patterns using Ethernet-connected computer controls and a set of Cree application programming interfaces known as SmartCast. Cree, which has offered its SmartCast controls for some time, recently adapted it for PoE as part of broad announcement by Cisco of 15 new lighting partners to engage in a PoE push that Cisco calls the "digital ceiling" (Fig. 3).

FIG. 2. Sensors integrated in LED luminaires, such as those equipped with Cree's SmartCast technology, are part of the big picture for tying lighting into the IoT and allowing data collection that will in turn drive more advanced control and usage of lighting as an information hub in building systems. Source: Cree.

Akridge's interest in matching lighting to student needs echoes one of the many PoE hopes at another school system, Florida's Miami-Dade County Public Schools, also an early PoE lighting adopter. Miami-Dade is working with Cisco and another of Cisco's lighting partners, Carlsbad, CA-based NuLEDs, as we wrote in our earlier PoE feature late last year. (LEDs Magazine will continue to deliver frequent stories following this rapidly emerging area as it stakes its claim on the future of lighting).

Another pioneering PoE lighting user, Dutch energy utility Alliander, mainly hopes that the new LED PoE system with 2200 connected luminaires at its Arnhem headquarters saves energy and harnesses data from sensors in luminaires provided by Philips. The sensors would make note of things like room occupancy, temperature, and climate and adjust not only lighting but heating and cooling systems accordingly.

FIG. 3. This is the spirit of PoE yet to come: A Cree SmartCast lighting system at North Carolina's Lord Corp. - makers of motion control equipment - which does not connect to Ethernet. Cree is now moving the technology into PoE, such as at the Cisco project a little deeper south at Mobile County schools in Alabama.

"We have the opportunity to improve the use of our building through clever use of data," Alliander's director of shared services Bart Blokland said in a prepared statement on a PowerPoint slide in February as part of a presentation by Philips at the Cisco Live! gathering of application developers, customers, and partners in Berlin.

Growing pains

Of course, things don't always work out exactly to script. Early deployers can find the going rough. Alliander, which was conspicuous by absence at the Berlin press conference where Philips announced the Alliander PoE deployment, declined later to be interviewed by LEDs Magazine for this article. Is everything okay there?

"There are some issues with the PoE system that Philips provided," an Alliander spokesperson told us. "We want to have those resolved before we can elaborate some more about what this system means to us." The spokesperson declined to comment further.

Sounds like growing pains, which is not too surprising given the early stages of a technology that has its share of complexities, not the least of which is apportioning control of specific groups of lights among different users, who might find themselves turning on or off the wrong ceiling luminaires.

Chances are that Alliander is not the only one experiencing a few aches. LEDs Magazine tried to follow up with the most heralded of all early PoE users - The Edge office building in Amsterdam - for a progress report, but the person in charge of the PoE system there did not return several e-mails. That is not to say that the system is troubled.

The Edge project, led by the building's anchor tenant Deloitte, uses luminaires from Philips connected to Ethernet switches not provided by Cisco. It is not clear who provides the switches. One source said that Philips - which is not a networking company - custom-built the switches itself.

More rockiness has been seen, such as at a live PoE lighting demo by Cisco partners Molex and amBX in early March: A touchscreen control tablet failed to allow individual alteration of light settings on four 2×2-ft ceiling troffers. Although the lights successfully responded to pre-programmed icons that could change their color, intensity, and CCT in a pre-determined manner, they were unresponsive to the icon intended to support personalized modes. amBX chief technology officer David Eves said it was just a minor, temporary glitch.

Smoothing out a complex system

It's the sort of thing that first users can probably expect for now. It's also exactly what vendors are going to great lengths to smooth out, as they all tout an "ease of use" story.

"I like to say it's very hard to make something simple and very simple to make something hard," said Gary Trott, vice president of product strategy at Cisco partner Cree, the luminaire provider at Mobile County schools. "We work very hard to make it simple. The development side is not an insignificant piece. The lights are communicating with each other through Cisco devices. And through standards-based protocol of Power over Ethernet. And you have to make that work and make initial setup and configuration changes simple and intuitive. And as simple as that sounds, doing that is not easy."

Trott emphasized the importance of using open programming interfaces that allow developers to easily write applications that tie into lights and sensors. For its SmartCast system, Cree uses an open protocol called Constrained Application Protocol (CoAP). It's the same protocol preferred by Middlesbrough, England-based amBX, the PoE software partner to Molex.

Cisco/Cree user Akridge has had at least one small surprise as he set about installing six new Cisco Ethernet switches for the PoE lighting at Clark-Shaw School.

"The switches had to be configured for the lighting to work properly, for it do some of the things that we're wanting to do down the road - sensors to turn lights on and all those kinds of things, and to do a lot of the digital ceiling stuff," said Akridge. "My contractors down here have never done anything like this, so it's taking them a little bit of time to learn."

It's the sort of thing that should eventually become de rigueur, but it has set back implementation by a couple of weeks - a minor hiccup in the wide world of technology.

The anti-fluorescent brigade

And it's not curbing any enthusiasm for Akridge, who described himself as a longtime hater of fluorescent lighting. He is keen to start examining the effect that improved light quality and tailored lighting conditions can have on students. He will experiment with things like mimicking natural daylight, which is regarded by many as healthier lighting and possibly more conducive to learning. Digital controls in the PoE system will allow the school to alter colors and CCT.

"The goal of a school district is to educate the students, and I want to see what level of influence the lighting has on learning in a classroom," said Akridge, noting that he'll be able to check lighting against grades and exam results, and that he will work with teachers to gather their observations.

This so-called human-centric or circadian lighting features widely in many PoE systems. amBX CEO John Niebel noted at the software company's recent joint PoE lighting announcement with Molex and Cisco, "As human beings we had two million years, mostly in the savannah, of waking up every morning, seeing the sun come up being red and yellow, going to a blue sky during the day and then sunset during the evening. It's what our bodies expect. But for the last hundred years or so, we've lived mostly under artificial light. And artificial light mostly does exactly the opposite of what our circadian rhythm wants."

The idea of PoE-supported circadian lighting is to return to a more natural state of lighting, albeit with artificial illumination. In the workplace, it could boost productivity and morale. One place that might soon find out whether that's true is PoE luminaire vendor Molex, which is outfitting 15,000 ft2 at its corporate headquarters in Lisle, IL with a PoE system scheduled to go live in April (Fig. 4).

FIG. 4. Practicing what it preaches, Molex is outfitting a 15,000-ft2 facility at its headquarters in Lisle, IL, with its own sensor-equipped PoE luminaires, such as this one. Source: Molex.

But it's not all about circadian rhythms. Another benefit that Akridge foresees at Mobile County Schools is that the lights could tap Li-Fi technology, replacing Wi-Fi transmitters and improving wireless Internet access for students at the school, which has a "bring your own device" policy in which students use their gadgets ranging from laptops to tablets to phones for Internet access related to their coursework.

Li-Fi is a nascent technology that embeds data in lightwaves. "Saturation coverage for Wi-Fi is very costly," noted Akridge. "It's hard to pinpoint the number of devices you have to get full coverage in a school. If I can get this particular system set up, then with Li-Fi everywhere that students [are] inside the building, they have total saturation."

Climate controls, and security, too

The list of possible uses of PoE lighting goes on. Akridge said he wants to hook the system into environmental controls, so sensors in the PoE lighting system could help adjust heating and cooling levels. He even wants to outfit PoE lighting to respond to possible emergencies, such as fire or an armed intruder.

"Ultimately, down the road, I want this tied into my security system," said Akridge. "If I have an active shooter alert, I want the room to turn a different color. I want something to signify it."

Akridge plans to evaluate the system soon, after its April startup, and depending on results, will consider applying for funding for wider implementation. Right now the school district is a pilot Cisco customer, paying nothing to Cisco. Calling the pilot a "proof-of-concept" deployment, he noted, "I need to bring this to the powers that be, the superintendent, the CFO, the facilities director." It's a conversation that Akridge said might start in the autumn. "If things go well, I'm going to request funds for the entire school," said Akridge.

Money talks

While Akridge himself is focused on the potential benefit to students, he noted that it's the potential for cost savings that could ultimately help the technology win approval for wider implementation at the school district.

Akridge anticipates a reduction of around 25-30% from the school's overall electricity bill, achieved by more intelligently controlling light use, and by the low energy usage of LEDs themselves. Akridge noted that while PoE power reductions can be as high as 60% from total bills, they will be less than that in hot and humid Mobile, where air conditioning accounts for a large part of the electricity costs. But a 25-30% reduction of a $21 million annual bill at the 89-school system could help fund a lot of core educational requirements.

"What's going to drive the people in the business area of this is the cost savings, so use the cost savings to help you develop things that are going to help with the educational part of it," said Akridge. He explained that it's reminiscent of 2006, when the district started saving nearly $1 million a year on telecommunications when it switched to Ethernet-based VoIP.

One aspect that might thwart potential users is cost. Although PoE can represent significant cost savings when compared to conventional electrical wiring, it can still look a lot more expensive next to non-intelligent LED lighting, and certainly next to conventional - and tried and true - fluorescent lighting, love it or hate it.

"When you do a cost analysis, it doesn't match up right now," commented lighting designer Francesco Anselmo from international engineering and architectural firm Arup.

John Baekelmans, chief technology officer of Cisco's Internet of Everything Solutions Group, noted that Cisco is readying a new switch that will be tailored to lighting. He declined to give details. It is expected to be less expensive than standard switches, and stripped of broader networking features - possibly the same switches that Cisco shipped to Mobile's schools.

But Baekelmans also pointed out that the comparison is a matter of apples and oranges because of the value of PoE lighting, and the way it can help drive other building operations such as security and heating and cooling.

"We've taken yet another capability in a building and we converged that over the same network or same wire," he said. "You don't have to have five different control systems."

Added Cree's Trott, "This is the first technology that has the potential to make the Internet of Things in an enterprise real."

Whose industry is it?

With the advent of PoE, the business dynamics of the lighting industry are changing. Certainly, many new PoE lighting specialists are emerging - a newer crop of companies than the Crees and Acuitys of the world that pioneered LED lamps. They include outfits like software firm amBX and hardware companies like NuLEDs, Innovative Lighting, Platformatics, and Energy Performance Lighting. Molex, traditionally a connector company, has morphed into a PoE provider.

The go-to-market strategies, and the very nature of who might control the industry, are also in great flux. With PoE lighting intricately linked to company-wide strategic data networks, it is potentially an item of keen interest to C-level decision makers, a higher point of entry than the facilities and operations manager to which the lighting industry is more accustomed.

"As the lighting fixture itself moves beyond just one function and can be a multifunctional device, the nature of who is buying it and what the business model is will change dramatically," notes Maciej Kranz, vice president of Cisco's corporate technology group.

As lighting companies and IT and Internet giants figure out how to work with each to make it all happen, it's starting to feel like the IT camp will lead, rather than vice versa. One reason: They know the C-suite.

"Cisco is the driving force for us," said Akridge at Mobile County Schools, who got hooked on the idea of PoE lighting when he attended a Cisco PoE lighting display at the Interop trade show in Las Vegas last spring. "I looked like I was the only person interested in it," he recalled.

Expect that to change very soon, if it hasn't already.

PoE powers up solid-state lighting

Among the many features that Power over Ethernet brings to lighting, it can:

• Cut installation costs by running electricity over Ethernet cable instead over conventional wiring that requires electricians

• Turn lights on/off or brighten and dim them as needed, saving energy

• Enable remote operations of lighting

• Introduce individual, customizable control via smartphones and tablets

• Recognize individuals when they walk into a room and automatically adjust lighting to their preferences

• Support human circadian rhythms, enhancing learning in schools and productivity in the workplace

• Gather information about room occupancy and usage, leading to more efficient use or even renting out of facilities

• Help intelligently control heating and cooling systems

• Control access to facilities and spot intruders

• Flash security alerts in different colors for different events such as fire, smoke, armed intruders, etc.

• Provide a possible backbone for Li-Fi systems

MARK HALPERis a contributing editor with LEDs Magazine ([email protected]).