Bright idea

1 min read

Researchers at Boston University's College of Engineering are working to develop the next generation of wireless communications technology based on visible light instead of radio waves.

Researchers expect to piggyback data communications capabilities on low-power light emitting diodes (LEDs) to create smart lighting that would be faster and more secure than current technology.

'Imagine if your computer, iPhone, TV, radio and thermostat could all communicate with you when you walked in a room just by flipping the wall light switch and without the usual cluster of wires,' said Boston University engineering professor Thomas Little.

'This could be done with an LED-based communications network that also provides light - all over existing power lines with low-power consumption, high reliability and no electromagnetic interference,' he added.

The research initiative, known as the Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center, is part of an $18.5m (£10.5m), multi-year National Science Foundation (NSF) programme awarded to Boston University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of New Mexico to develop the optical communication technology that would make an LED light the equivalent of a WiFi access point.

'This is a unique opportunity to create a transcendent technology that not only enables energy-efficient lighting, but also creates the next generation of secure wireless communications,' Little added. 'As we switch from incandescent and compact fluorescent lighting to LEDs in the coming years, we can simultaneously build a faster and more secure communications infrastructure at a modest cost.'

With widespread LED lighting, a vast network of light-based communication is possible, noted Little. A wireless device within sight of an enabled LED could send and receive data though the air - initially at speeds in the 1 to 10 megabit per second range - with each LED serving as an access point to the network. Such a network would have the potential to offer users greater bandwidth than current RF technology.

Moreover, since this white light does not penetrate opaque surfaces such as walls, there is a higher level of security, as eavesdropping is not possible. LED lights also consume far less energy than RF technology, offering the opportunity to build a communication network without added energy costs and reducing carbon emissions over the long term.