That crucial lightbulb moment

LiFi is set to revolutionise communications with technology developed in Edinburgh which is accelerating its development on a worldwide scale

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The future of communications may be as simple as switching on a lightbulb as the onset of LiFi technology moves to complement traditional Wi-Fi routers and masts with the simple lightbulb.

Taking a giant technological leap from Wi-Fi, which transmits data via radio waves, LiFi, as the name suggests, uses light waves to communicate data. The groundbreaking technology has the capacity to transmit data and unlock capacity which is 10,000 times greater than that available within the radio spectrum. The visible light spectrum is plentiful, free and unlicensed, mitigating the radio frequency spectrum crunch effect.

The LiFi Research and Development Centre at the University of Edinburgh is dedicated to accelerating the development of LiFi as a major global industry, through creating a pipeline for innovative ideas, technologies, products and partnerships. The research and development centre was formed in 2013 by Professor Harald Haas and aims to accelerate society’s adoption of LiFi and emerging wireless technology through engagement with major industrial partners, to fully harness the commercial and innovative potential of LiFi and to help establish a major new £5 billion LiFi industry by 2018.

One example of how LiFi technology is seeing the fruits of commercialision is through the products developed by pureLIFI, which was formed in 2012 by Professor Haas and Dr Mostafa Afgani. They realised the potential commercial benefits of the ground-breaking technology. And the benefits are plentiful, says pureLIFI’’s Chief Operating Officer, Harald Burchardt. “The main advantages of LiFi comes from the inherent physical properties of the light medium itself,” he says. “Light doesn’t penetrate through walls the same way that radio frequency does so you can create much more secure wireless networks.”

LiFi can really come into its own, argues Burchard, in situations where using Wi-Fi is deemed unsafe, such as hospitals, aircraft cabins and petrochemical plants. Overall, LiFi technology in future will enable faster, more reliable internet connections, even when the demand for data usage has outgrown the available supply from existing technologies such as 4G, LTE and Wi-Fi. It will not replace these technologies but will work seamlessly alongside them.

The biggest fundamental advantage we see over Wi-Fi is something called data density, explains Burchardt. “Effectively that is the amount of data rates per metre squared or per user. Think of it this way: let’s say your office has one Wi-Fi router in it but you have 20 different lights. The reason you have so many lights is because light is inherently very directional and contained; that’s why you need so many lights to cover an area. The same thing applies from a communications perspective.

“If you can repeat the same data rates from one light as you can from the Wi-Fi access point, and our research shows we can, then in that same area we can create 20 times the capacity with LiFi as with Wi-Fi. And that’s 20 times the data per user.”

The commercial opportunities are almost endless, especially in the safe and enterprise communications sphere. “The two main advantages around data density and security lend themselves perfectly to enterprise networking. That’s where we see the technology moving into larger roll outs.

“We see enterprise networks that are currently cable and Wi-Fi based being augmented or replaced by LiFi to deliver ultra high bandwidth in a secure manner.

“As the technology matures it can be integrated into tablets and phones. That’s where we see the technology moving to the home and the consumer. And as we have Wi-Fi in every home you will have LiFi in every lightbulb.”