One of the most fascinating aspects of many technologies is the way they transform the world in ways completely unanticipated by their developers. The Internet, for example, was originally conceived in the late 1960s by the Advanced Research Projects Agency to allow researchers across the US to access the limited number of university mainframe computers, no matter how great the distance between the researcher and the mainframe. It's unlikely any of the pioneering architects envisaged booking their holidays, checking the weather forecast, or using any of the other online capabilities we take for granted today.
Another perfect example of this phenomenon is lighting.
If you think about it, a lot of the power used to light streets and other public spaces is wasted. Streetlamps burn at full power even if the moon or ambient light from nearby shops is so bright that the street lights are barely needed. Fly at night, and the outlines of every city shine bright from street lamps, even when the streets are completely empty. Until now, the choices available to civic lighting departments were limited to what time in the evening the lamps should be turned on and what time in the morning they should be turned off. It's not much different from the 19th century, when the lamplighters would set off at the appointed time to light the gas lamps of Victorian London.
Two things are coming together to change this. One is the availability of high-power white LED lights (100 W or more), and the other is smart LED control chips. LED streetlamps are the preferred choice for all new public lighting projects, because they provide more lumens/Watt than previous lighting technologies, and they are increasingly being retrofitted to municipal lighting infrastructures for the same reason. This is yet another example of the phenomenon I mentioned at the start. The original market for LEDs was replacing high-voltage incandescent or neon lamps as indicators in electronic equipment operating at below 12 V, and you could get them in any color you liked, as long as it was red.
The luminous efficiency of LED lights ensures their position as the technology of choice for public lighting, but it is not their only benefit. Unlike all previous lighting technologies except for incandescent lamps, which have long been ruled out on the grounds of efficiency and lifetime, LEDs are dimmable. Of course, in itself, an LED lamp is just as dumb as any other light source, and that is where the smart power control comes in.
The combination of dimmable LED lights, smart power control chips, and sensors, all integrated into a smart municipal lighting system, will redefine the public lighting paradigm. It will liberate municipal lighting departments from the simple ON-OFF constraint they have always operated under and allow them to ask an entirely new question: How much light do we want here at any particular time? And it will allow them to automate the multiple answers to this question.
My imagination fills with potential scenarios. A few strategically placed ambient light sensors could provide input signals that make the street lights adjust dynamically to ambient conditions, including gradually turning the lights up as the sun sets or gradually dimming them as the sun rises, reducing the brightness of the lamps if there is bright moonlight or snow on the ground, or turning the lights on, even in the middle of the day, if there is heavy rainfall or fog. In some areas, you would want to keep the street lighting on all night, but in others, it would be safe enough to dim the lights or turn off every second lamp. All these options are coming available for the first time and will ultimately save energy and increase safety.
I can't help but wonder if these were the the original goals of the teams designing these next-generation power controllers? Can you comment on other technologies that had effects that were unanticipated?