[Hello Tomorrow] Could this put an end to having to use artificial light in interior spaces? This is what Italian startup Solenica has set out to do with its small ‘smart’ robot, which reflects natural light into dim areas.

Robot Lucy spreads sunlight where you need it most

Just as the mythical Titan Prometheus stole fire for the benefit of the human race, an article on Italian website The Next Tech suggests that Lucy – a robot showcased at the Hello Tomorrow Conference in Paris on 25-26 June – might soon be playing a similar role with sunlight. At first sight Lucy appears to be simply a rather better designed version of the connected ambient light system made by Philips: it is a 50 cm diameter sphere that projects natural light into the interior of a building. However, there is a major difference: Lucy is wireless. Solenica’s brainchild captures the sun’s rays and channels them into places which are too dark or too far from a window. The Solenica site claims that the device is able to provide light equivalent to that of 200 fifty watt halogen lamps.

In technical terms, the system is basically an assembly of small ‘smart’ mirrors. During the day it tracks the path of the sun and reflects its rays into dark rooms where hitherto the only solution has been less-than-ideal incandescent bulb lighting or neon strips. Lucy is based on photosensitive cells, on which the Solenica founder Diva Tommei worked as part of her PhD in Molecular and Computational Biology at the University of Cambridge.

It was during her studies there that this young Italian scientist developed the concept that would eventually become Lucy. After moving from Rome to a part of England which rarely enjoys much sunshine, Tommei says that she began to suffer: ‟I started to feel tired, depressed, and was not very productive. I didn’t understand what was happening to me until a doctor diagnosed ‘seasonal affective disorder’. This problem affects 10% of the world’s population every year. That was when I realised the extent to which the need for sunlight is a fundamental aspect of our biological system.”

‟I realised the extent to which the need for sunlight is a fundamental aspect of our biological system”

This is where the idea originated for this ‘smart’ robot which reflects the sun’s rays. It was developed in collaboration with Solenica’s two other co-founders, Alessio Paoletti and Mattia Di Stasi. The light that Lucy transmits is not only more natural but also more powerful than that provided by neon luminaries, and the device is powered by the same sunlight that it gathers, consuming no grid electricity. Large company workspaces are just one example of indoor areas that can be illuminated by Lucy, thus saving on electricity. ‟We’ve given prototypes to a number of families in Italy and they were very reluctant to give their Lucy back to us, as the sphere had radically changed the way their home works,” Diva Tommei told the Paris conference.

Lucy, un robot qui réfléchit la lumière du soleil

The robot reflects sunlight into dark places

Tommei points to the many benefits and general improvement in well-being brought by the Solenica system: those working or living in areas lit by Lucy are able to absorb more vitamin D as well as obtaining a suntan, and the system also improves both plant and animal health. However, the system can only reflect existing sunlight; it does not work at night or in entirely enclosed spaces. Moreover, the €300 price tag might put some potential users off. Solenica’s founder reveals nevertheless that a number of firms have already indicated their interest in the product, no doubt motivated by potential long-term energy savings. All in all, Lucy could well prove to be a useful complement to traditional lighting systems.

* [italian article] The Next Tech, Startup Italia

By Guillaume Scifo