Aqua Illumination is the oldest aquarium company around today that has always been specifically dedicated to designing and building LED reef aquarium lights. This week we travelled to Aqua Illumination headquarters to spend some time with the crew, wrap our head around the new AIFI, myAI and HyperDrive features of the new Hydra 26 HD and Hydra 52 HD LEDs.
Naturally, to understand where AI is going, we wanted to be reminded of where they’ve been, and so we rummaged the AI factory offices to round up one example of every LED fixture that Aqua Illumination has ever made and brought to market (not including the Flare LED). Nowadays it’s easy to take for granted how feature rich and high performance the current generation of AI Hydra 26 & 52 HD LEDs have become. But if we take a long view at what the aquarium hobby started with, it’s easy to see how aggressively AI has led the charge to make LED lights that are veritably, space-age.
Aqua Illumination started making LED lights like so many other companies, as a start up, working out of basement, and hand assembling nearly all of their light’s components. Our first face to face encounter with Aqua Illumination occurred at Reefapalooza 2007, where the fledgling AI was demonstrating their “Aqua Illumination LED”.
With only a single model of LED light available, it was not necessary to come up with a different product name to differentiate it, and the ‘AI’ acronym for the company name hadn’t yet come into common usage. The Aqua Illumination LED was quite literally the second such controllable LED aquarium light offered to the hobby, and it was brighter, thinner, and much more affordable than the PFO Solaris that has since faded away into history.
The Aqua Illumination LED Module was a seminal moment in reefkeeping LED lighting history, being the first to introduce a modular approach to LED fixtures. While the first Aqua Illumination LED had multi-channel control accessible via a built-in serial port, just like what used to be found on most computers, the Aqua Illumination LED Module featured a fully fledged controller.
After the introduction of the Aqua Illumination LED Module, AI launched the AI Sol and a new controller, both of which took advantage of the rapid pace of progress in electronic and LED components. The AI Sol and new controller were much more streamlined than the Module LED that came before it, and the Sol was the first to use super bright Cree XPG LEDs.
At the time the promise of the longevity of light emitting diodes was still a glimmer in our eyes, and we took it on faith that the LEDs would last as long as they do. The AI Sol was the first really successful aquarium LED light on the market, becoming a workhorse controllable LED light the world over. Shortly after the AI SOL, AI introduced the Sol Blue featuring a tricolor pattern of two shades of blue to one color of white, setting the precedent for blue-heavy light color from LED lights that would come to be the new standard spectrum for nearly all LED lights made for the reef aquarium.
The AI Sol was a very successful LED aquarium light, so much so that for the next few years Aqua Illumination had to learn how to mass produce their product on a bigger scale than ever. AI Sol LEDs were backed-ordered for months at a time, and everybody had to get their hands on some. It would be a little while until we saw another new LED light from AI, with the AI Nano being the first LED light that AI developed specifically for smaller reef tanks.
The AI Nano featured a new LED cluster array, with the first onboard LED controls through the form of capacitive buttons. The development of the AI Nano was AI’s first foray into an LED cluster that deviated from their previous triple-LED cluster, and it paved the way for the over-the-top AI Vega. The AI Vega LED featured wireless controls, 20 LEDs, each with independently controllable intensities, and a program for users to order their own clusters of Powerpucks that they could completely customize.
The newfound power, controllability and versatility of the AI Vega required the development of a brand new controller, one with wireless communication, a color screen and a simple graphical user interface. The AI Controller opened up the door to really fine grained control of LED spectrum, photoperiod, and advanced features like weather simulation and acclimation modes.
By this time Aqua Illumination had settled into its role as the dominant maker of high-tech controllable LED aquarium lights with a rapid pace of new product developments over the next few years. The AI Vega was followed by the AI Hydra, then the AI Hydra 52 and smaller Hydra 26 which paired up with the AI Director, putting even more LED features and control into the cloud, and the rest is recent history.
The AI Prime was the first light that Aqua Illumination to feature ‘AI-FI’ as a way for the light to connect directly to the cloud, circumventing the need for an intermediate like the Director all together. Finally, this week Aqua Illumination started shipping the AI Hydra 26 HD and Hydra 52 HD ‘HyperDrive’ which intelligently redistributes power from the LEDs you’re not using, to the ones you are using.
As AI’s latest generation of HyperDrive Hydra LEDs start shipping around the world, we can’t wait to try them ourselves and to dream about what will come next. It’s quite impressive to imagine how powerful and capable today’s LED lights have become, and regardless of what brand or model you are using, Aqua Illumination deserve a big share of the credit for constantly pushing the envelope of what is possible with this now widespread technology.