From road maintenance to social care: The Norfolk tech firm illuminating the possibilities in street lighting
- Credit: Nick Butcher
The team at Enlight has some bright ideas about how smart lighting could revolutionise our urban areas. Bethany Whymark went to find out more about their innovative technologies.
To innovate and progress in business, sometimes you have to think outside the box.
That's what technology expert Gary Atkinson did when he imagined a street light which could measure temperature, track a missing person, or let you know when it has been damaged.
In 2015 he joined forces with father-and-son team Les and David Aarons, then directors of electronic design consultancy Select Software, to found Enlight.
Less than two years later, the company's progress was recognised with victory in the enviro-technologies category at the EDP Business Awards.
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The vision for the Loddon-based firm was to use pre-existing lighting infrastructure to make street lights more efficient and cost-effective for local authorities, as well as using them to collect a range of environmental data to help with highways management.
David and Les had exhibited their first lighting products at an inventions show in 2000, later developing a network into which the lights could feed data about their energy consumption.
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Mr Atkinson was attracted by the duo's mesh network and data harvesting. He brought with him an impressive CV – 10 years with microchip giant Intel in the UK and America, and five years at Arm Holdings in Cambridge, where he ran a team developing microcontrollers.
He said: 'When I was at Arm I went around the world presenting on the impact that the Internet of Things is going to have, from food security to personal healthcare.
'Over 90% of the people I saw at these conferences were software people, talking about how they will take this data and save all this money.
'They seem to think you can go out and buy sensors to do this off the shelf. But they don't exist, and until you have a platform to connect the sensors, what is the point?
'We are addressing what I see to be the gap of measuring the physical world and putting that data on a platform.'
Mr Atkinson helped David and Les to launch a seed round in late 2015, which attracted £1.5m including some cash from the New Anglia LEP and Norwich-based Low Carbon Innovation Fund.
Two years later, the company is in discussions with Norfolk County Council about turning Loddon into a test site for its smart street lights, a project which would see 330 lights installed in the town. It is also talking to three other county authorities who are interested in testing the technology.
Hertfordshire-based Mr Atkinson has some previous experience in the smart technology field – while working with Arm he introduced the executive board to the idea of the Internet of Things and began to develop ideas about how microcontrollers – a chip designed to perform a single function – could be more widely utilised.
'One area I thought was going to be important was using lighting infrastructure to create connectivity for the Internet of Things,' he said. 'Where there are people and power lighting is well distributed, it has mains power and it usually has height, which is good for radio frequencies.'
The company's concept was to fit devices into the heads of street lights, which could transmit data using radio waves via a mesh network – for which well-dispersed street lights make an ideal platform. 'The sensors and devices can be smaller and cheaper and will last longer on battery because they are not having to send data so far,' said Mr Atkinson.
The lamps are also fitted with Bluetooth chips, which could lead to the further uses in social care which Mr Atkinson foresees.
He hopes to use 'geo-fencing' to help in the care of elderly people with early-stage dementia, by transmitting data from wearable Bluetooth-enabled devices when they stray outside their 'normal' areas or off normal travel routes.
The lamps could also be used to receive data about the temperature of an elderly person's home and send alerts if a room gets too cold.
Mr Atkinson, who says the social care aspect is of particular interest to him, believes such utilisation of Enlight's technology could save local authorities money from their elderly care budgets and reduce time pressures on carers making home visits.
Enlight now has a range of 32 products and is also exploring opportunities in the commercial buildings market, for example helping facilities management companies with preventative maintenance, while the directors can also see applications in agriculture, retail and manufacturing.
Mr Atkinson said: 'There are companies whose raison d'etre is to serve one market – ours is a horizontal technology that can be deployed to multiple markets. There is a whole range of applications that have the same problem: how do you measure it and control it in a cost-effective manner?'