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Connected light
takes flight

When visionaries meet luminaries, something  unexpected and innovative is always on the horizon.

In an eye-catching experiment, students from Blue Jay teamed up with Philips Lighting to create a drone capable of playing tic-tac-toe with kids in a hospital. It was an engaging experience for the youngsters, but the fun disguises a serious message: that Visible Light Communication is coming of age. And the implications could be enormous.

At first glance, a game of old-fashioned tic-tac-toe seems like an unlikely starting point for a discussion of cutting-edge technology, but the players in this instance were somewhat unusual. On one side of the board were children at Dutch hospital Maxima Medisch Centrum in Eindhoven. On the other, was a drone, delivering its noughts and crosses to precise locations on the grid thanks to communication via an LED lighting system.
 

The project was a collaboration between Philips Lighting and Blue Jay – a multi-disciplinary team of top students from the University of Eindhoven, whose mission is to show the world just what indoor drones are capable of. According to Ties van Loon, the current Team Manager of Blue Jay, there are three key future applications in the field of healthcare.

Philips Lighting and Blue Jay Visible light communication drone demo
“You can potentially use drones for logistics in hospitals,” he says. “They can help fetch equipment for a doctor during surgery, for example. The second use is for entertainment, which is reflected in this tic-tac-toe project. The third use might be in monitoring patients – perhaps ensuring that someone with dementia doesn’t wander out of the clinic.”

 

There are three key applications in the field of healthcare: logistics, entertainment, like this tic-tac-toe game, and potentially monitoring patients.”


Ties van Loon,
Team Manager of Blue Jay

Encoded data with huge potential

From a business perspective, the experiment proves the potential of a technology known as Visible Light Communication (VLC), which has a wide range of applications in retail, offices, healthcare and other fields.


The essential principle is that a rapid ‘modulation’ of LED lights can be used to encode data, without any change in illumination obvious to the human eye. Each light emits a different frequency signal, which can be recognised by a device with an image sensor or camera. Van Loon explains that there are other potential technologies Blue Jay could have used to help their drone find its way around, but VLC was directly applicable. “It’s more accurate and it also gives a heading, as well as a position. The drone knows where its nose is pointing.” According to Gerben van der Lugt, an expert in the area of indoor location services at Philips Lighting, there are two key applications of VLC technology.


“The first use,” he says, “is light identification and control. Effectively, you can control light intensity. If you go to The Edge in Amsterdam – a building occupied by consultancy firm Deloite – there are 6,000 connected light nodes. By sending unique codes, it’s possible to control the lighting from a tablet or smartphone.”

The second use identified by van der Lugt is his own specialism of indoor location. This means that portable devices – and even drones – can be certain of where they are in a given space to an extraordinary level of stability and accuracy with the help of VLC. “They know their location to within 30cm,” van der Lugt observes, “meaning it’s a lot more accurate than, traditional technologies like, wifi or Bluetooth triangulation.”

 

The drone knows where its nose is pointing.”


Ties van Loon,
Team Manager of Blue Jay

A new future in retail, offices and industry - interest grows in VLC

There’s already significant deployment of VLC within retail. Giant supermarket chains such as Carrefour, Edeka and Media Saturn have been experimenting by offering customers indoor navigation, finding them optimal routes for their shopping and even targeting them with relevant messages and promotions at key points on their journey.

Another great benefit is that the technology produces a series of useful analytics in areas such as customer flow, footfall and dwell time. What’s more, store staff can be guided through the store to effi­ciently pick online orders or to restock shelves. The applications, however, go a long way beyond stores.

 

What about office buildings, hospitals, warehouses and airports?

The managers of all these facilities can see the potential of connected light that provides location. If you’re running a large hospital, for instance, you want to make sure that patients make it to their appointments on time, helping to increase effi­ciency and reduce no-shows. At the same time, there’s the added benefit of reducing the stress levels of patients. O­ffice workers can benefit from navigation to empty workspaces and meeting rooms or finding colleagues in today’s smart office workspace.

VLC for medical environments
The Edge Amsterdam used VLC

Value beyond illumination

 

From Philips Lighting the pledge is to deliver value beyond illumination – an idea that has required the company to think beyond the more functional world of luminaries and embrace some truly visionary thinking. Van der Lugt’s own background was originally in consulting with the likes of PwC and IBM, where the projects revolved around growth, innovation and new business models. He is therefore perfectly positioned to see the potential of VLC technology.

 

“We’re experiencing the second big lighting industry transformation in a decade,” argues the Philips Business Manager. “First of all, there was the move to LED, which brought us unprecedented light effi­ciency, new opportunities is design and light control as well as new competition. Now, with making lighting smart and connected, we can unlock value that goes far beyond light itself. It’s clear that light is ideally placed to be a backbone for the Internet of Things because it’s ubiquitously present, densely deployed, powered, and connected. We now live in an era of smart luminaries, with sensors, and communication devices. You could look at the lighting as the future “nervous system” of a space. To leverage its potential, we provide software and services and work with multiple software partners.”

 

We’re entering the second big transformation in a decade. First, there was the move to LED, now with making lighting smart and connected, we can unlock value that goes far beyond light itself.”


Gerben van der Lugt,
Indoor Location Services Leader, Philips Lighting

A fast-developing landscape

   

So who are the key players in the development of the new applications?

Blue Jay would be a good example, as their expertise in the world of robotics can combine seamlessly with that of connected light. In 2016, for instance, they developed the world’s first Drone Café, in which the autonomous airborne devices were able to take orders from guests and serve drinks. According to Blue Jay, drones have the power ‘to extend our senses and actions’ in the world of healthcare.

They have four essential requirements for their drone. They expect it to be autonomous, safe, social and helpful. The autonomy is only really possible through the location-based technology facilitated by LED lights. That way, the vehicle can tell exactly where it is at any given point.

 

Start-ups and smaller businesses involved in digital mapping, location-based services and product catalogs play an important role in the VLC market too. If we are searching on a smartphone while in store, we need the interface to be natural and intuitive. And what about hand-held scanners? They can be connected via lighting in environments where people are less likely to be using tablets and smartphones.

Of course, there’s an important role for bigger companies too, such as retail IT and building automation companies, consultants and systems integrators.

Four essential requirements for VLC drone

So how far will the changes go?

Philips Lighting’s van der Lugt argues that we’ll accept change provided it brings us a clear benefit. Could this extend to light-controlled drones replacing humans in warehouses or delivering coffees to customers in shopping malls?
 

“Our lives as we live them today might seem quite medieval with a 20-year perspective,” he says. “We live with things the way they are because we believe there is no other way of doing them. But a robot might be much better at, say, stock taking in a store, as it never gets tired and it doesn’t make mistakes.”

So back to the Blue Jay tic-tac-drone. In van der Lugt’s view, the miniature flying craft is a particularly complex device to control accurately. “It’s what we call a high-demand device,” he says. “That means our teams are being stretched to deliver an indoor positioning system with very high reliability and stability as well as low latency. It’s inspiring and motivating to know that we have been able to make our technology work here and it gives us even more confidence about its huge potential with the smartphones and tablets we use every day.”

 

We live with things the way they are because we believe there is no other way of doing them.”


Gerben van der Lugt, Indoor Location
Services Leader, Philips Lighting

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