ERC Students Showcase Visible Light Communications Research at White House

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Samuel Mbugua and Christian Emiyah of Morgan State University, a partner institution of the Lighting Enabled Systems & Applications ERC (LESA) based at Rensselaer Polytechnic University, presented their project on visible light communications (VLC) at the first “Maker Faire” sponsored by the White House. The students showcased the work of the LESA ERC to members of President Obama’s cabinet, deans of engineering colleges from across the country, and other esteemed members of the STEM community, including the Directors of both the NSF and the NIH.


VLC technology uses light to transmit data. Through overhead LED lights, high-speed data can be received by user devices, such as laptop computers or mobile phones. This means that local wireless data networks (such as Wi-Fi installations) will be able to handle more traffic with less delay and interference. The Obama administration established the Maker Faire to promote growth in the manufacturing sector and to strengthen the Nation’s competitiveness in science, technology, and engineering. Samuel Mbugua, an ERC graduate student from Kenya, is gaining expertise in this highly promising field through his ERC work, while informing decision-makers about its potential impacts.


Working with his ERC-funded advisor, Prof. Kofi Nyarko, on the LESA-funded VLC global outreach research project, Mbugua is pursuing a Masters in Electrical Engineering at MSU,. Mbugua’s research ties VLC to building management systems as part of a comprehensive energy management system. “In the late 1980s,” says Mbugua, “during the initial stages of the Internet, there was wild speculation that there was no way it was ever going to be a reality. Today, virtually nothing can happen without it. The same principle is at the core of the LESA ERC’s research. Visible Light Communication can augment and sometimes replace radio frequency (RF)-based communication, which often suffers from limited bandwidth and tight regulation constraints.”

Mbugua, together with colleague Christian Emiyah, presented a low-cost demonstration platform for using Visible Light Communication (VLC) for dual purposes of illumination and communication that enables intelligent building controls and occupant tracking. The LESA ERC has demonstrated that data can be sent from one point to another using the same light that is used to illuminate a space. This is achieved by pulsing the light electronically as a way to encode the bits to be sent, and attaching a visible light receiver to decode the light at the receiving device.  Once received, the information can be used to do anything, such as turn on utility equipment or send an email from a phone to a compatible device.  This is made possible through meticulous hardware and software engineering. On a global scale, the integration of LEDs is continuously increasing in residential and commercial building lighting systems, and VLC will enable both data and light to be transmitted through the same device.

The first Maker Faire, held June 18, 2014 and titled, “A Nation of Makers: Empowering America’s Students and Entrepreneurs to Invent the Future,” featured over 100 makers from more than 25 states and included more than 30 exhibits, representing an enormous range of creativity and ingenuity. 

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