LED Technology Powers Flashlight Revolution

Issue 4 and Volume 15.

FoxFury's Command 20 Fire Helmet Light has panoramic lighting.
FoxFury’s Command 20 Fire Helmet Light has panoramic lighting.
The Pelican 9410 being introduced at FDIC produces over 700 lumens.
The Pelican 9410 being introduced at FDIC produces over 700 lumens.
The Streamlight Fire Vulcan LED has a computer that can be programmed by users for patterns of operation.
The Streamlight Fire Vulcan LED has a computer that can be programmed by users for patterns of operation.

It’s not easy being a flashlight manufacturer these days.

The reason is the light-emitting diode (LED), a semiconductor that generates light when electricity passes through it. Over the last few years, the pace of LED development has accelerated to inconceivable levels, propelling LEDs past the intensity of incandescent bulbs.

LED performance is increasing at rates of 10 to 20 percent per year, according to flashlight makers, and the technological advances show no signs of slowing down.

“There’s always going to be something brighter and better available at this stage of the evolutionary curve for LEDs,” said Ray Sharrah, the chief operating officer of Streamlight, Inc. of Eagleville, Pa. “It’s common in our product line and in the industry to see stickers slapped on that say, ‘Now 50 Percent Brighter.’ The good news is the performance has increased. The bad news is the performance has increased. So the product you just bought may not be as good as the ones that are coming out today or tomorrow.”

Mario Cugini, the chief executive officer at FoxFury, which was established in 2003 in Vista, Calif., said he expects LED intensity to increase by 20 percent a year for the next 3 to 5 years, unless a major breakthrough improves performance at an even greater rate. “It’s like computer memory,” he said. “It changes fast every year, and you keep upgrading. That’s the nature of LEDs.”

Going The Way Of The VCR

One consequence of the technological race, he said, is that his company’s product brochures “are completely useless” soon after they are printed.

Scott Jones, the flashlight product manager at Pelican Products, Inc. in Torrance, Calif., said the advantages of LEDs over incandescent bulbs are numerous, from durability to reliability to more efficient use of batteries, although LEDs are more expensive. “They won’t break if you drop them and they’ll never burn out,” he said. “I fully expect to see incandescents go the way of the VCR. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened yet.”

Power LEDs

Flashlight manufacturers do not make their own LEDs. They buy them from a handful of LED companies, which have huge research and development budgets.

Sharrah, who has been with Streamlight for 32 years, said the biggest lighting advances have been propelled by what he refers to as the power LED, a category of LED that has a form of heat sink used in conjunction with the semiconductor chip.

“One of the barriers in general lighting applications is heat, how you remove it and manage it,” he said. “Power LEDs are all about thermal management. They have come a long way recently. In the last three years or so, we’ve crossed the threshold where we’re actually getting more lumens per watt than we did in incandescent applications.”

The advent of the power LED enabled flashlight manufacturers to focus light as a beam with illumination range, he said. “That was the real technical leap forward,” he said, “the ability to take the power LED, couple it with optics and generate a usable columnated illumination pattern so you could actually get some distance out of it.”

Sharrah said the state of the art at the moment in flashlights is a high-output power LED, coupled with an electronic regulator and an optic that provides a balance of range and peripheral illumination.

He said Streamlight designs its own drive circuits, and some of its flashlights have computers that can control intensity and run time and operate like a strobe.

“The computers regulate the power to the LED, and they can perform other functions such as watch the temperature,” he said. “So it’s like having a brain in the flashlight. In some of our models we’ve kind of gotten carried away, and we even let the customer program it.”

Not all customers, however, want to program their flashlights. Regarding the company’s Fire Vulcan LED lantern, which can be programmed for different patterns of operation, he said, “We’ll show that to a fire department, and they’ll say, ‘Can we just get it to go off and on?'”

While LED technology has led to brighter lights, Scott Jones of Pelican said it has produced another benefit, a reduction in the size of flashlights. “That’s one of the things we’re real excited about,” he said. “If we’re able to get better performing flashlights in a smaller footprint and a lighter weight that’s a huge, huge plus to the firefighter.”

Illuminating Switch

Pelican’s newest product, scheduled to be introduced this month at the Fire Department Instructors Conference trade show in Indianapolis, is the 9410 LED, a firefighting lantern light with an articulating head. “It runs on four LEDs,” Jones said, “and produces about 710 lumens, which is the brightest handheld light Pelican has ever manufactured.”

He said the light is equipped with another first for Pelican – an electronic illuminating switch that gives color designations to indicate the battery level. The color changes from green to amber to red, which signals less than 25 percent of battery life left.

The 9410 also incorporates several modes – high beam, low beam and flashing. “The reason for flashing mode,” Jones said, “is to grab people’s attention to mark egress locations.”

Mario Cugini at FoxFury said his young company is growing fast, in part because it is very technically-oriented. “We tend to sample, try, test and start designing products with LEDs that still have not hit the marketplace,” he said. “An example of that is the Sunbolt. At 11,000 lumens, it’s probably the most intense LED housing unit that has been created so far.”

The average light for the fire service, he said, varies from 30 to 100 lumens for something that is worn on the body to 1,000 to 2,000 lumens for a box that is carried. “So 11,000 is basically a large spotlight,” he said. “It can go on the vehicle, it can plug directly into the vehicle’s battery and can basically shine 20 stories up on a window.”

The Sunbolt can also be operated underwater to a 30-foot depth. “It’s used heavily in Hollywood for filming because it doesn’t matter where it is,” he said. “It’s safe.”

Indestructible And Efficient

FoxFury’s products are designed to take a lot of abuse. “Every product we make has to live in the fire world, has to drop three stories and survive, and has to live in the very cold,” Cugini said. “Everything we do also has to be fully functional in at least six feet under water.”

He said the bulk of the company’s products are worn by individuals. “One thing has set us apart and allowed us to grow fast,” he said. “The headlamps that we have emit light in a horizontal manner.”

FoxFury’s headlamps, he said, allow firefighters to scan everything in a room while hardly moving their heads, meaning they can process the scene faster than if they had a cone headlamp, and move on to the next area.

The company’s Command 20 is its fourth generation headlamp. “We kept changing,” Cugini said, “until we created a product that is as indestructible as possible and as efficient as possible.”

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