3i: Lighting up the world's roads

3i: Lighting up the world's roads
You may not have heard the name 3i innovation before, but the company is doing big business abroad.

3i innovation road lighting technology idealogYou may not have heard the name 3i innovation before, and that’s because it’s one of the many Kiwi businesses getting on with the job rather than talking up its own successes.

The company, which picked up a highly commended award at last year’s New Zealand Innovators Awards, is quietly exporting groundbreaking technology to the US and Europe – its smart LED systems lighting the way on roads around the world.

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Hardwired electronics are vulnerable to cable failures, says chief executive Charles Maud, but 3i’s wireless technology eliminates that major weak point and consequently, sparks and the risk of electrocution.
“With any light outdoors the fail point is wires,” he says. “At some stage wires will always get water into the unit.”

The key to 3i’s products is inductive power transfer, which occurs when energy is transferred via a magnetic field – no wires needed. In action, it’s a little bit like magic – charging across thin air or even through a solid (non-metallic) surface.

The technology, which stems from experiments carried out 20-odd years ago at the University of Auckland (3i pays royalties from every sale to the university) is the same as that used by HaloIPT – although Halo is using it to develop wireless charging for electric cars and was recently sold to Qualcomm in the UK.

So what tips the scales in their favour? Maud says it’s the whole of life cost, given the long life of LEDs and lack of maintenance required on 3i lights, which have a failure rate of close to zero.

What’s more, it’s possible to communicate with these lights, ‘talking’ to them individually or collectively to control and change their appearance. For example, they can be dimmed, flashed or made to change colour.

3i technology is in place at crosswalks, bus lanes, car parks, airports, the Lyttelton and Terrace Tunnels and more recently, at the port/waterfront in Auckland. But the main market is further afield, with 800km of installations in 16 countries, including the Golden Gate Bridge and the I-110 freeway in Los Angeles (the busiest and oldest in the world).

In the US, its lights have helped keep drivers on the road at traditional trouble spots, and even helped save the lives of turtles in Florida by replacing traditional street lights, which used to attract the little critters and lead them to wander across busy highway lanes to their peril.

Big things are also underway in Europe, where a safety push means emergency lighting will be required in all tunnels by 2019. A big proportion of that work is going to 3i, such as Hamburg’s Elbtunnel – the Eiffel Tower of tunnels, according to Maud.

One interesting application can be found in Copenhagen, where moving lights on the road are calibrated to a traffic light up ahead. If cyclists follow the guiding lights, they’ll make it through the intersection without needing to stop, as they are timed to connect with a green traffic signal.

Because 3i’s lighting products survive well in harsh environments and can operate through physical barriers, there’s potential in marine applications (pool and boat hull lighting) or even in the mining industry.

They’re ideal for lighting dangerous curves – the cost of straightening a road is prohibitive, and Maud says there are around 15,000 high-risk ones in New Zealand alone.

And as mentioned, the high degree of control is another selling point. Drivers can get so used to seeing the same thing every day – school zone signs, perhaps – that they’re preconditioned to take little notice. But altering the way lights display and operate on a daily basis is one way to change that behaviour.

Transportation is a massive industry, and 3i hopes to help set some standards in traffic technology. That could range from roundabouts to motorway entry and exit points.

“It’s been a bit of a lone journey in that regard because we’re the only ones with this kind of technology,” says Maud.