John Johnston, NPI Director, Chemigraphic
Li-Fi technology has very quickly made the leap from the research labs and into commercial reality.
And it’s no wonder. Li-Fi could be a critical enabler of the switch from 4G tech (which offers a promise of bandwidth) to 5G tech (which can guarantee this bandwidth).
So, what exactly is Li-Fi and what opportunities can it offer OEMs?
Li-Fi’s rapid development
At a 2011 TED talk, a discernible ripple of excitement passed through the crowded auditorium when E Save & Exit dinburgh University’s Harald Haas demonstrated how a standard LED lamp could be used to transmit high-resolution video directly to a receiver placed just beneath the bulb.
Since then the ripples have grown and Li-Fi has made the transition from academic possibility to commercial reality.
In today’s connected world, wireless data is the critical yet invisible element of many of the services upon which we rely. But, as the devices we use grow exponentially and the emerging technologies of autonomous systems, the Internet of Things(IoT) and virtual reality (VR) gain an ever-firmer foothold, the demand for reliable, secure and rapid wireless connectivity will only increase.
Herein lies a series of problems that threaten to limit the broader horizon that appears to be just within reach.
- The radio (RF) spectrum upon which the bulk of our connectivity relies is getting crowded. Some experts have predicted an imminent ‘spectrum crunch’ that could potentially crash our communications networks.
- The data spectrum for visible light is 1,000 times greater than the RF spectrum. This means that there’s more capacity to drive bigger bandwidths and higher data rates. Li-Fi developers expect to deliver speeds of 1Gbps or above – around 100 times faster than conventional Wi-Fi – very shortly.
- Li-Fi data can be contained within a tight area of illumination, there’s minimal risk of interference and a much higher degree of security. While radio waves penetrate through walls and can be intercepted, a beam of light is strictly confined.
The commercial benefits Li-Fi can offer – for manufacturing, retail, aerospace, defence and home electronic sectors among others – are quickly being investigated.
And in many cases are already being deployed: according to a recent report from Global Market Insights, the Li-Fi industry is expected to be worth $75.5bn by 2023.
Li-Fi in use
Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the main players is a company that emerged directly out of Haas’s research, Pure LiFi. It has so far mainly focussed on components for next-generation smartphones and other connected devices, achieving 189 deployments of its tech across the globe.
CEO Alastair Banham identified a range of further potential applications for the technology, ranging from use in smart office spaces and domestic situations, whether to allow high-bandwidth machine-to-machine communications or provide domestic ‘hotspots’ in high-bandwidth areas.
French supermarket, Carrefour, has developed a Li-Fi-based indoor-positioning systems, whereby each LED has a distinct location code and interacts with a smartphone app to make finding products easier for customers.
Another initiative is the EU-funded WORTECS (Wireless Optical/Radio TErabit Communications) project, which is looking into how a combination of high-frequency mm-wave radio communications and Li-Fi technology could be used to meet the incredibly high data rate demands of VR technology.
And proof that the sky really is the limit for Li-Fi will arrive later this month when Air France’s Li-Fi enabled in-flight entertainment (IFE) solution takes off. The system will offer multimedia data throughput that is expected to operate 100 times faster than existing Wi-Fi systems.
Back at ground level investigations are also underway that will use a visible light spectrum, rather than infrared, so that ramp drivers can ensure rapid data loading is occurring while bags are being handled, for example.
Li-Fi relies on a direct line of sight to work optimally. It is for this reason that it is being seen as complementary to, rather than a replacement for, Wi-Fi in most instances.
Oxford University photonics specialist Dominic O’Brien observed that:
‘It might be one of those things that actually the average user doesn’t really know about because it’s just another wireless technology integrated with the RF technologies that are available already. Together they provide some augmented service. But are users going to know it’s light and not radio?’
Another limitation is the quality of light conditions needed for Li-Fi to be effective. Full sunlight or conventional room lighting may compromise its accuracy, if not prevent it from working at all.
Safe and Secure
But even its limitations may be of great benefit to certain sectors.
Take defence, for instance. Since Li-Fi data transmission uses a much shorter range than Wi-Fi and is less vulnerable to interception, it is a strong contender for creating more secure data transfer and communication. You have to get between the light source and the receiver to intercept it, so in effect, you would need to sit on someone’s knee to do so.
And even as an added option to sit alongside Wi-Fi, it is still one that can offer a securer, more reliable and faster connectivity across a range of devices.
‘Where it can really bring a benefit is in the crowded radio spectrum where we see the launch of a new wireless LAN standard pretty much every year but fail to deliver those data rates in practice because there’s just so much RF noise and interference out there,’ argues Pure LiFi co-founder and CTO Mostafa Afgani. ‘By offering to shift that communication to a different band – the light band – we can now provide another wireless channel that can deliver those data rates over a medium that is much more reliable and can actually deliver the quoted data rates.’