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LEDs create wireless network using light

05 Nov 2008

An $18.5m US project that aims to develop LEDs that emit information as well as light could see its first commercial applications in the next few years.

Researchers from three US universities are joining forces in a 10 year project to develop smart lighting technologies. Teams from Boston University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of New Mexico hope to replace existing lighting with LEDs that double up as secure communication network points.

"There is a dual functionality that can be realised with LEDs - one function is the visual effect and the other is for communication," Fred Schubert, director of the Smart Lighting project, told optics.org. "Just like in fibre optics, where you communicate with light pulses, LEDs could transmit information by modulation at a rapid rate."

LEDs can be controlled in terms of spectrum, colour temperature, polarization, spatial emission patterns and temporal modulation and it is this controllability that Schubert says can be exploited to smart effect.

"As the world switches from incandescent and compact fluorescent lighting to more durable, energy- and cost-efficient LEDs, we at the Smart Lighting Centre aim to go beyond replacement and do things that are not possible with conventional light sources," commented Schubert.

The project has already built prototype devices that enable connection to the internet using light. Other possible applications include delivering timetable information relevant to each platform at a train station and traffic lights that can not only show a driver the red, green or amber signal, but can also transmit this information to the vehicle.

With widespread LED lighting, a vast network of light-based communication is possible. A wireless device within sight of an enabled LED could send and receive data through the air - at speeds in the 10s-100s megabit per second range - with each LED serving as an access point to the network.

"This line-of-sight property of optical technology is an advantage for secure data transmission," commented Schubert. "Currently, radio frequency wireless systems can penetrate walls, which is fine for many applications. But for some applications that require privacy, line-of-sight operation is an advantage."

The project hopes to demonstrate its first working prototypes in the next few years and is currently in talks with around 20 major lighting and display companies.

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