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The Embedded Beat

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As a Kinetis MCU product marketer, I always look forward to seeing how the wizards of the embedded design community utilize Kinetis MCUs to create game-changing devices. With the newly announced ARM Cortex-M7 core, and its expanded capabilities, I am excited to see what the future will bring for all market segments as more SOCs integrate the new core. There are several attributes of the Cortex-M7 that I believe will imbue end applications: compatibility with the ARM Cortex-M4, and other Cortex-M-class cores, enhanced processing performance, higher performance system busses and cache for internal and external memories. Exploring these aspects of the Cortex-M7 will give insight into the capabilities of this new core.

 

The compatibility aspects of the Cortex-M7 bring a wide range of pre-built resources to be utilized by embedded creators. Compilers, libraries, and even application code will all benefit with an easy migration from previous devices.  This is expected to shorten development times and allow SOCs that integrate the new Cortex-M7 core to be used to generate devices possibly by the end of 2015. Compatibility will allow hours of software work for functions such as voice recognition, sensor fusion or performance optimization of control applications to be directly transferred over to new designs. Embedded designers will find that their time spent finely optimizing application code can be directly ported to new devices with the enhanced Cortex-M-class core. Hence the new performance enhancements of the Cortex-M7 can be utilized with little or no software work.

 

The ARM Cortex-M7 improves processing performance substantially with an upgraded processing pipeline. The enhanced pipeline supports execution of multiple instructions per clock, improving the throughput of the core.  The higher processing performance can be used to perform functions in a shorter amount of time. Specifically, there are two aspects of the processing performance that will affect end applications – especially those requiring lower power consumption. First, having more capabilities per clock cycle, will allow a task to be completed at lower system clock speeds. Digital filters which previously required 200MHz to operate can now be done at 100MHz. In addition, the computational improvements will allow designs to take advantage of low-power run modes as the improvements can be realized at all CPU speeds. Second, another strategy for low-power design is completing tasks as quickly as possible. Along with the processing throughput, the ARM Cortex-M7 supports higher CPU speeds. So when using the new core to its fullest capabilities, time spent in active modes processing can be reduced, which will allow applications to spend more time in low-power modes.

 

In order to ensure that the Cortex-M7 core is fed the instructions and data needed to support its upgraded processing, several changes have been made to the system buses of the core. Instruction and data buses have been enlarged to be 64-bit over the previous 32-bit busses, enabling multiple instructions to be fetched per clock cycle. In addition, the high performance 64-bit AXI system bus, is a type of system interconnect that is new for Cortex-M-class cores. It’s built to be optimized for throughput as it supports multiple transactions and queuing of transactions. Attached to the AXI bus are configurable instruction and data caches that provide low latency buffering of information as it is fetched from slower memories. The resulting micro-architecture creates a micro-computer that is much more functional with external memories. The end result is expected to be Cortex-M-class designs with more captivating user interfaces, more data logging capabilities and unlimited firmware space.  As some of these features are optional and dependant on how the SOCs are designed, the benefit will depend greatly on the system architecture for a particular product.

 

The Freescale Kinetis MCU portfolio is well positioned to take full advantage of these thrilling new features, such as the AXI bus and cache, provided by the new ARM Cortex-M7 core. Within the Kinetis K series, there are already Cortex-M4-based devices that include caches and external memory interfaces, such as DRAM that deliver the highest performance benchmarks for Cortex-M-based devices. Kinetis MCU system architects are leveraging these existing designs for new Kinetis products built with the ARM Cortex-M7. To take advantage of the performance benefits, Kinetis devices have key features in regards to power efficiency. Power modes such as high-speed run mode and very low-power run mode dynamically change the power management of Kinetis devices. High-speed run mode will complete tasks as quickly as possible. Very low-power run mode can be used to extract more processing from the Cortex-M7 core at lower CPU speeds. 

 

Finally, Freescale offers the broadest portfolio of MCUs built on ARM Cortex-M cores, with close to 1,000 Kinetis devices in market today. For our customers, the sky is the limit for creating astonishing creations using our devices. We look forward to seeing what the future holds with regards to ARM Cortex-M-based designs. What I know for sure, however, is that it’s going to be awesome!

 

Donnie Garcia is on the Kinetis New Products Team

I wish I could have all of my patient’s data available every time I see them. Often they don’t understand how having a full data picture can streamline care, save money and most importantly improve health.  To be clear, a set of vital signs is not really enough for a complete health snapshot, there are many other things I would like to know. 

For example, my diabetic patients often come into the office with a list of numbers, like the results of their blood glucose meter. In reviewing these patchworks of numbers I often find myself trying to guess if that data corresponds to errors in glucose testing.  As a result, many questions spring to mind; was the data taken at the right time of the day? Does the diet have something to do with the glucose levels? I want to know the relationships between the numbers and seemingly mundane activities.  I wish that the numbers were supplemented with other quantitative as well as qualitative data.

The challenge is that asking the patient to take better notes and to be mindful about everything that can influence results can overwhelm a patient. Patients don’t want to feel sick and keeping a journal with so many different things to measure makes them feel like they are in a hospital bed with a nurse trying to take vitals every half hour! 

Remote patient monitoring.PNG.pngSo what is the answer? New technologies like tiny microcontrollers and sensors combined with low power functions and wireless antenna devices will be able to monitor patients on a 24-7 basis with much more accuracy while providing us with a massive amount of information. This type of preventative monitoring will be conducted remotely by sophisticated networks of wearable devices coupled with the intelligent processing and communication of health data.  This network phenomenon is well-known as Internet of Things (IoT) and it has tremendous potential to positively impact preventative healthcare.   

How might things change in the near future? Soon we will be able to:

  • Receive automatic alerts when a patient needs to report additional qualitative data and order additional tests to avoid acute complications
  • Allow patients to escape the tedious requirements of testing and let the devices do it automatically
  • Customize and see the effectiveness of the treatments we are giving to our patients

There are three key parts to the collection and processing of health data within the context of IoT.

Gathering the data – The wearable device

Traditionally, it has been impractical, costly and labor intensive to monitor stats consistently, but with emerging wearable technology in the form of rings, watches, and patches, stats can be monitored easily, accurately and continuously. The input point (IoT edge node), is usually composed of sensors, an embedded processor (typically an MCU), a connectivity engine and an energy source as well as an analog Front End (AFE). To relieve the patient of the burden of understanding what, when and how to take measurements, wearable devices address these issues automatically with their self-contained intelligence. The AFE is the friendly primary interface between the patient and the processing and communications power of the wearable device.

Processing – Applying intelligence

Once data has been gathered, the sensors conduct basic algorithms such as threshold detection and simple data analysis. For example, the processing might involve triggering communication if blood pressure is above an advisable level. It is important that the measurement and transmitting be accomplished quickly and accurately so that the health manager can forward the information to the corresponding healthcare service provider.

The Kinetis KL03 chip-scale package (CSP) MCU from Freescale is the world's smallest ARM based MCU. Available in the ultra-small 1.6 x 2.0 mm² wafer-level CSP, the Kinetis KL03 CSP reduces even more board space while integrating even more rich MCU features than previously seen in the market. The Kinetis KL03 CSP MCU consumes 35 percent less PCB area, yet delivers 60 percent more GPIO than the nearest competing MCU.

Communicating – Closing the treatment loop

The most critical part of the data process is getting the data to the healthcare providers so that the decision for healthcare management can be made. This could be as simple as making adjustments to treatment or even preventing an acute complication of a chronic degenerative disease.  This type communication requires processors that can meet demanding throughput requirements with robust real-time, point-to-point communication like QorIQ processors from Freescale.

In the long run, the IoT will enable the patient to take control and be more active in his own treatment and recovery. It will lower the social and economic costs of overwhelmed physicians and nurses at hospitals and move roles and activities that were previously only performed at hospitals to patient homes, preventing acute complications and helping improve treatments for patients.

To learn more about how the possibilities for future treatment and the technologies that will make them possible, be sure to read the Freescale Whitepaper How Connected healthcare Today Will Keep the Doctor Away.

Dr. Jose Fernandez E.E.,M.D., currently resides in Japan and leads Healthcare Business Development at Freescale.

My young children enjoy playing with gift boxes and wrapping paper just as much as they enjoy playing with the toys inside. I can see why. Packaging is interesting, especially in my world of Kinetis microcontrollers. But why? I sat down with our MCU product engineering team to get some of my questions answered – read on and you'll see why it’s so interesting.

QFPs, BGAs and CSPs ... oh my!

A quick review of an online distributor’s website revealed that more than 400 package options exist across various MCUs. That’s a whole lot of package options. But why so many? Engineers have design requirements that can vary just as much as the applications they are designing. Some are designing for smallest size, others are looking for packages that will simplify their manufacturing and reduce PCB costs and some are most concerned about their products long term reliability. Engineers are primarily looking at three criteria in their package selection: type, dimensions and pin pitch. As is the case with many aspects of technology, looking at package types can result in acronym overload. To address the broadest base of customers, Kinetis MCUs are available today in several different package types like: QFNs, SOPs, SOICs, BGAs, CSPs and QFPs. Here's a rundown of what they all mean.

 

QFPs

1 Kinetis Chip.PNG.pngA QFP or quad flat package is a surface mount integrated circuit package with ‘gull wing’; leads extending from each of the four sides. An LQFP is a low-profile quad flat package, which offers a thinner body thickness at just 1.4 mm, which is almost half the height of some traditional QFPs. Kinetis MCUs using QFP technology leverage this thinner body package.

 


BGAs

2 Kinetis 2 Chip.PNG.pngIn comparison to a QFP, a ball grid array (BGA) package is one where solder balls are placed in an array under the package rather than external leads placed around the edges. This allows more electrical connections for a given area but increases some of the PCB complexity. There are several types of ball grid array (BGA) packages. The wire-bonded MAPBGA (molded array process ball grid array) is an excellent package for low-performance to mid-performance devices that require packaging with low inductance, ease of surface mounting, low cost, small footprint and excellent package reliability.

Extremely thin fine ball grid array (XFBGA) is similar to the idea of an LQFP in that it addresses the concern of thinness or body height, and an XFBGA can have a profile height less than 0.5 mm. Kinetis MCUs are offered in both traditional BGAs and these thin MABPGAs.

CSPs

3 CSPs Chip.PNG.pngCSP is short for chip-scale package. According to IPC’s standard J-STD-012, the package must have an area not more than 20% larger than the die and it must be a single-die, direct surface mountable package to qualify as "chip scale." With such a broad definition, there are even BGA packages that fall into this category. In fact, I read that there are well over 50 different types of CSPs. 4 Golf Ball.PNG.pngWafer level chip-scale packages or WLCSP technology is a true CSP technology because the package is actually the same size as the die with just an array pattern of bumps or solder balls attached at an I/O pitch that is compatible with traditional circuit board assembly processes. These type of packages can get really small – even smaller than the dimple of a golf ball, as we have showed with the Kinetis KL03. Kinetis mini MCUs use WLCSP technology and are primarily targeted for those applications that really value the miniaturization.

 

 

One size does not fit all

Like most people, I purchase a gift item first, followed by the box, bag, wrapping, ribbons, and card. However, that's not necessarily the case with MCUs. Often the packaging is the key decision. It is not uncommon for me to receive a call from sales with something like, “My customer needs a 5V MCU part in a 6 mm x 6 mm BGA – what do we have?” Never a mention of speed or peripheral set, just a generic request on the I/O voltage and a very specific package request. It is clear that packaging is often a leading factor in selecting an MCU. And since MCUs are used everywhere, you can imagine the countless different packaging requirements needed. An engineer building 100 units of a large industrial machine has a different need than someone building 10 million units of a portable device. There are a ton of different opinions out there as to which package type is better, where engineers talk about everything from signal routing and PCB layers to solderability and reliability. However, once they determine the right package type for their project, the criteria of dimensions and pin pitch must also be addressed. The dimensions of the chip have a direct impact on the overall size of the end device. An MCU is 3D of course, but traditionally, designers have really only looked at X and Y dimensions. That is starting to change as people realize that the height of the device is super important too, which is why those thinner packages I mentioned are becoming increasingly important as well. Pitch relates to the spacing between the pins (distance between the centers of the adjacent pins) and it has a direct impact on the PCB layout and manufacturability. For a given sized package, the smaller the pitch, the greater number of pins available. However, the smaller the pitch, the more attention that needs to be given to ensure robust and reliable board assembly. You may wonder why I did not mention pin count as an obvious selection. Well, the truth is that as long as you have the right dimensions and pitch and are able to bring out the right features, the pin count should not matter as much.

Package Your Way Program for Kinetis MCUs

Package Your Way.PNG.pngThe product and packaging engineering teams have strutted their technical capabilities many times since I joined the Kinetis MCU team, including with the world’s smallest ARM Powered® MCU in 2013, then again in 2014 when they shrank the world’s smallest ARM Powered MCU by another 15%, and most recently when they announced the new Package Your Way program, which seems to me a formal introduction of what they have already been doing for years – qualifying and delivering alternative packages for Kinetis MCUs to customers in a relatively short time. When a new product is launched, it is usually launched in a couple of different packages. With the Package Your Way program, additional package options are also now broadly offered. These alternative packages are available for select Kinetis MCU families, with pin out and pricing information readily available for customers. When requested, samples are built and production committed based on customer demand, with these new parts often being delivered to customers in as little as one month. Through the Package Your Way program, Freescale is able to offer even more package options to meet the various needs of today’s designers, who (like my toddler at Christmas) think that the packaging is every bit as interesting as the actual part on the inside.

Check out my Package Your Way interview with Product Engineering and the Package Your Way program for Kinetis MCUs.


Kathleen Jachimiak is product marketing manager for Kinetis MCUs.

Contributions from Leonard Pelletier, Freescale RF Applications Engineer and Jeffrey Steinheider, Freescale Product Marketer for Small Cell SoCs

 

CTIA shot.JPG.jpgFreescale made its mark at this year's Super Mobility Week, powered by CTIA. One of the largest cellular trade shows in North America, the show focused on the need for constant high-speed connectivity everywhere and with significantly increasing user density, mostly due to the rapid rise in the number of machine to machine (M2M) wireless connections and the Internet of Things (IoT) enabled devices for the home.

 

In the past, most households had a few wireless devices – a couple of cell phones, tablets and laptops – that was it. Now and into the future, when you count smart smoke detectors, thermostats, burglar alarms, appliance monitors, personal health monitors, motion tracking devices and an unending list of other devices the number of wireless-enabled devices will range from 20 to 50 or more – think IoT. This massive increase in wireless density will drive the need for higher performance communication standards, such as the current concepts that the industry is exploring for 5G networks.

 

In addition to the growth in the number of devices, operators are forecasting the need for lower latency and higher bandwidth. This requires smaller wireless base stations to meet the demand in the limited radio spectrum that wireless operators own.  Microcells, picocells and even in-home femtocells will become increasingly more common components of the heterogeneous wireless network that will support this wireless growth.

 

To assist with the small cell rollout, Freescale announced the availability of our VortiQa LTE-TDD Layer  1 baseband software for our QorIQ Qonverge small cell SoCs. LTE-TDD allows network operators to deploy networks in smaller spectrum allocations, and LTE-TDD networks are operating in China, Japan, India and North America today. Freescale also announced that the QorIQ Qonverge B4860 and BSC9131 SoCs were selected by Airvana to power their OneCell™ small cell solution.  The Airvana OneCell™ won best product in the CTIA E-Tech In-Building Wireless category, showing how our customers are using the scalability and flexibility of the  QorIQ Qonverge family to create innovative solutions for the wireless networking market.

 

Yes, it is a great time to be a part of the connected world, and Freescale is a major player in this high-growth market. Freescale provides the QorIQ Qonverge baseband processors, QorIQ communications processors, Kinetis MCUs for IoT processing, i.MX MPUs and ZigBee-based MCUs running IPv6, along with the analog RF power amplifier components that help make it all happen.

 

It is good to be connected and that is what this year’s Super Mobility Week was all about!

The performance and power balance has been a daunting challenge for embedded designers since the first MCU was introduced. Now we’re faced with the Internet of Things, where a whopping 25 billion Internet connected devices are predicted by 2015. And these aren’t just simple portable devices, instead they’ll run increasingly complex algorithms, gathering, sharing, acting and interacting on data. Balancing performance and energy efficiency has never been more important as devices must perform more and more functions with longer battery life in smaller footprints which restricts the sizes of the batteries used. MCUs must be more flexible by striking a balance between performance and power depending on the application use case.

kl03 block diagram worlds smallest MCU Kinetis.PNG.pngHow do you strike the performance and energy efficiency balance?

I’m often asked this, and the simple answer is that there is no “one size” fits all solution. Like driving an automobile, the mileage will vary per driver. In this case, the solution is dependent on the types of tasks that the application must complete and how often they occur. These tasks will determine your run vs. sleep profile (power modes), peripheral activity and CPU horsepower needed. All of these have a huge impact on your power consumption.

A great throughput/mA number is only one aspect that must be taken into consideration with a system designed to minimize power without sacrificing performance. I like the ARM Cortex-M cores because they provide scalable performance for various power conscious applications and offer ideal flexibility to create unique low power implementations.

Let’s look at a couple of general applications within the Internet of Things (IoT) space and review the most important low power design consideration for these applications.

App example #1: Wearables

Not an hour goes by that my Google Alerts trigger a new mainstream article about some new cool wearable application or idea, from activity monitors to smart watches and smart glasses. The predicted growth of this market is enormous: >50% CAGR over the next few years.

Take for example,  a fitness watch or activity tracker. With the consumer putting more and more importance on style these products demand tiny batteries. No one wants to go running with a lead weight on one arm. Likewise, the consumer doesn’t like to charge their watch very often, but they expect it to have many cool features (especially in this world of smartphone apps).

Therefore, the designer needs a microcontroller with best in class power consumption and enough humph to perform tasks like calculating your heart rate, pace, position, ground contact, recovery time and so on. These kind of tasks need an energy efficient core like the Cortex M4 with floating point unit to knock out the computation and spend more time sleeping. Further power optimizations can be made by looking at the other hardware engines and how they impact performance and power consumption.

Battery life is of utmost importance – it’s about days and weeks, not hours. Low power architecture in the design is a priority for that kind of extended battery life. And controller capabilities such as flexible power modes with fast response time through quick wake-ups and low latency interrupts, to use for monitoring purposes are critical. 

App example #2: Data-loving sensor nodes

Another great example that’s power sensitive is sensor nodes. In the world of IoT, it’s all about data, right? Think about your home. Soon enough there will be sensors all over your house recognizing your behaviors and patterns. Sensors nodes will detect things like who is home. Yes, your house will listen to voices and determine which family member is speaking. It can use this information to detect your presence around the house and turn on and off necessary lights. It might even configure the TV, room temperature and other gadgets depending on your individual profile. There are tons of cool things that sensors can bring to our lives.

These sensing techniques are all controlled via a microcontroller. But who likes a smoke detector that gives you a low battery chirp at the worst time, when you are sleeping. Nobody does! Therefore, these sensors need to have longer battery life or maybe even infinite battery life via energy harvesting. In these types of products you need ultra-low leakage since the sensor spends most of its time sleeping. You also need smart peripherals to collect data. 

These cool sensing gadgets not only require low power operation, but they require low power boot options to manage with limited energy harvested power sources. Think Direct Memory Access (DMA) and smart peripherals that can function in deep sleep modes to offload the CPU and help with current limited systems where the application needs to gather a significant amount of data from sensors. I’m convinced of the scalability of the ARM Cortex-M core portfolio provides a unique opportunity for designers to select the right balance of performance and power for their particular application. Case in point: The Kinetis K and L MCU families have such a scalable low-power portfolio of MCUs to excel in these types of applications. In this video, Kinetis MCU’s power and performance stacks up against some other manufacturers.

 

 

And the evolution continues. Check out the Kinetis MCUs and their energy efficient architecture including:

  • Ultra-efficient ARM Cortex-M processors with industry leading throughput/mA
  • Energy-saving architecture techniques (clock and power gating, low power boot, fast memory)
  • Several, ultra-low power modes fit for different applications
  • Energy-saving peripherals without needing to wake up the core

 

Eduardo Montañez manages the Global Kinetis Systems & Architecture team in the Microcontroller Solutions Group.

Related Links:

Get started on low-power design for IoT with the Freescale Freedom development platform (see specifically are FRDM-KL03Z and FRDM-K22F

Podcast: Paultre on Power - Eduardo Montanez of Freescale on advanced MCUs in the IoT

The inevitable demand for performance and energy efficiency

As an engineer, I sometimes think that if I gather the right data and analyze it correctly, I can use logic to predict the future. Sometimes it seems to work well, other times not so much.

solar-roadways-internet-of-things-i-cant-predict-the-future.jpgAnd as a Freescale product manager on the Internet of Things (IoT) team responsible for defining the Freescale IoT product strategy and roadmap I feel like it would help if I could predict the future. Sure, we get tons of market reports and analyst data, and every day we have potential IoT partners come and visit with us to explain why their vision for IoT represents the future. But at the end of the day not all of them can be right when it comes to the future of IoT.

When we try to cut through all of the hype of the IoT, parse out the dreamers from the doers and make sense of data, trends and prognostications provided by people who in all likelihood aren’t omniscient either, the reality of the situation becomes apparent. No matter how much we try, we won’t be able to predict every facet for how IoT evolves over the next 3 to 10 years.

A little while back, I was kayaking with my 18 year old daughter, who is more into animal rights and art than technology, when she asked me about what I was doing at work. I explained to her how cool IoT was and how it was going to change the future. She then surprised me by recommending I Google “Solar Freakin’ Roadways” if I wanted to see something which was really cool.

As soon as we got back home I ran upstairs and checked it out. It was really cool but hard for me as an engineer to believe was technically feasible, at least not today. My initial thoughts seem to be confirmed when I watched some of the “nay sayer” videos posted to debunk Solar Roadways.

Who is right? Are the Solar Roadway people the next Wright Brothers or are they the next Cold Fusion guys? I don’t know who is right for sure and I am hesitant to bet against a crazy idea that could change our world as we know it.

So how do solar roadways relate to IoT? None of the solar roadways material I reviewed even mentioned it as an IoT application. Seems like it certainly could/should be an IoT application. Covering every paved surface in the US with glass solar paving bricks would probably require lots of IoT technology to be successful. It would dwarf the efforts to make every electric, gas, and water meter in Brazil part of a smart grid.

Then it hit me. We don’t know for sure what the future of IoT will bring. We can do a lot of analysis and try to determine who is going to be right and who is going to be wrong. But at the end of the day whether the IoT is shaped by big dreams, the wisdom of small wins, or both (as is most likely), ultimate success will come down to fundamental execution based on a large but finite set of building blocks.

At Freescale, I am not sure we can 100% predict which specific IoT customers or partners will ultimately win or lose. Ditto for which IoT standards will take off and which will fizzle out.

In fact, the IoT of the future will most likely be a mix of heterogeneous networks and technologies. No single IoT standard will prevail for all applications or likely even within a single application space.

We can’t predict the future, but we do know that for the foreseeable future all of the billions of lines of IoT code being generated out there by VC funded startups as well as established technology leaders will run on state-of-the-art microprocessors/controllers, will be connected, will get data from billions of sensors, will need to be reasonably secure, and all of those devices will need to be effectively managed.

In some ways investing in IoT is a lot like investing for retirement. An all or nothing approach based on predicting the future will most likely lose. The key will be making a series of smart bets across a sizeable portfolio of industry leading assets.

This is why Freescale has been successful in pre-IoT applications since the “old days” of M2M, deeply embedded applications, and internet infrastructure, long before some clever marketer coined the term “Internet of Things”. Our roots are firmly based on providing a comprehensive set of leading edge microprocessors and microcontrollers, associated software/tools, high capability sensors, and internet connectivity & security. Our investment in low power wireless connectivity is growing rapidly as is our investment in management of heterogeneous edge devices.

Our customers and partners are collectively building the IoT future today and they are doing so using Freescale technology. We don’t need to “predict” the future. We need to continue working closely with our customers and partners (established and emerging) to anticipate their needs and provide them with the industry’s leading portfolio of IoT building block technology and services enabling them to achieve their vision. The future will follow.

That is something I am confident we can do!

Bill Krakar is the Freescale Microcontroller Division IoT Product Manager

Are you one of those embedded engineers who operates in a very low-level world of direct register accesses? Or are you in the high-level world where the hardware is highly abstracted and differentiating features get lost?

 

It’s possible to bridge both of these worlds by leveraging a layered approach with software components and the RTOS. This helps you get the basic software done, leaving you with more time and resources for unique application level software. The end result? Your device will be differentiated from similar ones on the market.

 

Let’s start with a view of embedded software sliced into layers of functionality. Each layer maps to your application’s requirements. Different aspects of an application can also access multiple layers, from high level functionality to low-level hardware access.

 

Lowest layer: the microcontroller

The lowest layer is, of course, the microcontroller hardware itself. The unique features of MCU peripherals open the door for differentiating and compelling applications.

 

For instance, take the Kinetis K22 and compare it to Kinetis KL03. Because Kinetis K22 uses the ARM Cortex-M4 core with floating point unit and adds crystal-less USB functionality, it’s ideal for the broadest range of applications including sophisticated activity monitors and building control.   Kinetis KL03, on the other hand offers ultra low power and smaller physical size making it ideal for the smallest portable, battery-powered applications where stand-by time needs to be measured in months – not days.

 

Enter the hardware access layer

Each MCU peripheral is controlled through a set of memory-mapped registers that are part of the hardware. Directly above the hardware registers, we introduce a set of register access macros. These macros provide the programmer a consistent interface to accessing registers that is mapped 1-to-1 to the documentation in the hardware reference manual.

 

Building on the register macros, a hardware access layer (HAL) is added. Multiple register operations are combined into single function calls, and API names are abstracted. The HAL is a powerful layer that gives you the ability to directly access differentiating hardware features, while not having to think in terms of registers and bitfields.

 

And the peripheral driver layer

On top of the HAL sits the peripheral driver layer. Many developers are familiar with this layer, as it appears in slightly different variants in most applications. The driver layer fully abstracts the hardware into generic terms. For instance, an I2C driver has an API defined in terms of I2C bus operations.

 

Sitting next to the driver layer is an optional RTOS, such as Freescale’s MQX RTOS. Drivers need to be aware of an RTOS, if present, in order to have the best performance. Atop the RTOS is middleware, such as USB or TCP/IP stacks, an SMBus driver, a Graphic UI system, and so on.

 

Finally, the embedded application builds on all the layers below it.

 

So, you can see, it’s possible to bridge both of these worlds by using high-level, abstracted peripheral drivers for parts of your application that do not require special features. This may be typical access to a standard communications bus like SPI, I2C, UART, or Ethernet, among many others. For atypical use cases or special performance requirements, you can dive down to the lower-level HAL layer to access unique hardware features. Consider use cases that includes special ADC or DAC features such as automatic triggering from other peripherals, or to enable certain low-power capabilities of the hardware. The two approaches can even be combined for a single type of peripheral, where a high level driver is used for one ADC instance but the HAL is used for another.

 

Using a layered approach to software provides the ultimate flexibility for software designers and can significantly improve time to market.  The Kinetis software development kit (SDK) is the Freescale software solution that enables this type of multi-layered access. The picture below illustrates how the layers are organized to optimize the software solution for the microcontroller.

MCU software taxonomy.PNG.png


Chris Reed is an Embedded Software Architect at Freescale.

Cookies.PNG.pngWhen designing an embedded solution there’s no argument that the MPU/MCU is the heart of the design. Without many other components, you won’t have a complete solution. Just like chocolate chip cookies, without the other ingredients you don’t actually have cookies, just chips. As any chef knows, having the right ingredients nearby and ready for use makes the process a lot smoother. The same holds true for embedded solutions.

 

With our “chips,” Kinetis MCUs, you can access essential “ingredients” —enablement software and tools—to help you quickly jump-start your design. One of the newest ingredients is our software development kit (SDK) for Kinetis MCUs. It is a complimentary comprehensive software package specific to the Kinetis portfolio of MCUs, which are based on ARM® Cortex®- M4 and -M0+ cores, and offers an extensive suite of robust peripheral drivers, stacks, middleware and example applications. This new addition to the enablement portfolio is designed to simplify and accelerate application development with any Kinetis MCU. Along with the beta release of MQX RTOS for Kinetis SDK v1.0.0 this power combo of an SDK and an RTOS enable you to create something exciting.

 

Next, on the list of enablement is the complimentary Kinetis Design Studio integrated development environment (IDE). It provides all the basic requirements needed for software development on Kinetis MCUs to help you begin your design right away. It’s based on free, open-source software including Eclipse, GNU Compiler Collection (GCC), GNU Debugger (GDB), and others. The Kinetis Design Studio IDE offers a simple development tool without code-size limitations.

 

Now how about some hardware to mix all these together? Evaluating Kinetis MCUs is made simpler with the modular Tower System development platform. Offering a mix-n-match approach to your development environment, the Tower System lets you customize your designs with an array of peripherals that add next-generation features and functionality. Need more?  Rapid prototyping with Freescale Freedom development platforms is fun, easy, and very low-cost. These boards are form-factor compatible with the Arduino™ R3 pin layout, which means you can experience design freedom with a growing set of third-party expansion boards without breaking the bank. For optimum results, select an ARM mbed development platform variety. This web-based development platform brings an online software development kit, free software libraries, hardware designs and online tools to your fingertips and is the fastest way to create products based on ARM technology.

 

All the “ingredients” you need and more to get your embedded design based on Kinetis MCUs up and running can be found on the Kinetis Tools and Software page. (www.freescale.com/kinetis/sw).  Bookmark it and use it as a go-to spot to get started.

 

What will you design today?


Rebecca Phillips is a software & tools product marketer for the Microcontroller Division at Freescale.

Recently at Embedded System Design Conference in Munich, the ARM vs. x86 technology processor architecture battle was addressed. It's happening not only for consumer devices but for so many other markets using embedded electronics, including machine-to-machine (M2M), industrial cloud, sensor data aggregation and communication, sometimes referred to as the industrial Internet of Things (IoT).

 

The conference addressed some key challenges in the industrial market and IoT:

  • Quality of open source software: A presentation about OSADL, assessed quality of open source software, and showed that an ARM® SoC from Freescale is on par in term of stability and reliability compared to x86 (additionally, ARM based SoC showed advantages in power consumption and computing efficiency)
  • Quality and security: One example that Digi presented covered security enhancements for Android on Freescale’s i.MX 6 series of applications processors
  • Board form factor standardization driven by SGeT: The latest two standards are tackling ARM versus x86 choice with SMARC, designed for ARM SoC, and Qseven, bridging ARM and x86 (presented and showed by Congatec, MSC, Kontron)
  • Dedicated board form factors with high-speed interfaces and advanced multimedia: These are features that address markets such as medical, transportation, signage and many more. Companies include Advantech, Toradex, TQ Systems, among others.

 

The strong presence of embedded board providers shows that industrial market is in need for processing solutions that are adaptable, flexible, easy to use, improve time-to-market while alleviating processor complexity. The main embedded board manufacturers such as Advantech, Congatec Digi, Kontron, MSC, Toradex and TQ gave speeches and they are all part of Freescale Embedded Board Solution Proven Partners. Some partners provide boards based on i.MX application processors (ARM Cortex®-A9 core) and x86, making their experience interesting.

 

The choice does not seem easy between these two architectures and, from the conference, the main criteria are cost, mobility and size for a preference toward ARM SoC and Microsoft OS Windows 7 or XP legacy for x86.

 

Indeed, the advantages of having a wide diversity of SoC processors available is that it is now possible to look beyond such criteria. Processors are important but what’s paramount is efficient implementation in a chip together with GPU and VPU (Graphic and Video Processing Units) high-speed interface (SATA, PCIe, HDMI) and even other smaller processing cores (Cortex M4 + Cortex A5 in SoCs for Vybrid controllers, for instance). Moreover, for the end solution, it has to follow the green trend and be cost efficient, hence low-power consumption, longevity, reliability and low maintenance should be considered. It means that for a portable device requiring efficient processing and display which needs to operate under industrial conditions (24H/day and a 7days/week) for 10 years, i.MX applications processors are the preference. For new applications linked to the IoT, and without operating system legacy, other important criteria includes size, security, concurrent real-time and non real-time and cost-effectiveness.

 

So, should industrial IoT applications be the next battleground with ARM versus x86? Or can we expect that pragmatic needs will prevail?

Emb System Design Conf 2014 ICC Media 1 (1).jpg

                                        Freescale’s booth at ARM vs. x86 Conference

 

Stephane Gervais-Ducouret is a Global Marketing, Partnership & Solutions Manager at Freescale.

Google shocked the automotive industry by showing the world its self-driving car, which doesn’t have a steering wheel or pedals. BMW showed the public its “highly autonomous driving” demo during CES 2014, in which the car takes control of the wheel using various sensors and actuators. Audi has their own self driving system called “Piloted Driving,” which can steer to follow lanes and maintain distance with nearby vehicles controlling the pedals, assisted by light detection and ranging. But when are the drivers going to enjoy the perks of semi or fully assisted driving? Is the market ready to adopt these technologies?

 

Although most people may cringe at the idea of relaying the control of their vehicle to a computer or a processor, they are likely unaware that most of the functions of their cars, and the majority of cars on the road, are already being managed by devices such as sensors, processors, and microcontrollers that are the backbone of the autonomous vehicle.


Let’s take a quick look under the hood

Engine control units (ECUs) or powertrain control modules (PCMs) are computers that control a series of actuators on internal combustion engines based on arrays of sensors to ensure optimal engine performance. They read a multitude of embedded sensors within the engine and decide in real time when to open and close the air and fuel intakes and when to fire the spark plugs. Computers have been in charge of these vital vehicle functions for more than three decades. In 1980, Freescale (Motorola at the time) introduced the world’s first electronic engine control unit and since then the microprocessor controlled electronic fuel injection system has been the standard approach. Transmission control units are devices that control modern electronic automatic transmissions. These controllers typically use sensors from the vehicle as well as data provided by the engine to calculate how and when to change gears in the vehicle for optimum performance, fuel economy, and durability. Automatic gear changes in vehicle transmissions are no longer enacted by transmission fluids or mechanical means. Instead, a computer is in charge of deciding when to change gears and uses an electro-mechanical actuator to shift the gear.

 

Anti-lock Braking Systems (ABS) are automated systems that allow the wheels of a vehicle to maintain tractive contact with the road while braking, this prevents the wheels from ceasing rotation to avoid uncontrolled skidding. This means that a computer decides in real time how much braking fluid is actually applied to the braking system using hydraulic valves. Auto manufacturers such as Chrysler and Mercedes have relied on processors to control this vital function in vehicles since 1971, with others adopting this soon after.

 

Drive by wire uses an electro-mechanical system to replace the traditional human machine interfaces of a vehicle. For example, when you turn the steering wheel or press the gas pedal, the driver is no longer driving a mechanical system that is ultimately causing the wheels to turn or more gas to be pumped to the engine. Instead, this action is causing sensors to be activated and information is transmitted to the appropriate control unit, and a computer applies the intended mechanical action -steering, acceleration or braking. Nissan was the first manufacturer to place this system in a production model, allowing flexibility and configurability in the drivers’ operation.


AutoADASBlog.jpgHow will the current technology connect to the future?

These are examples of the current marked adoption of embedded electronics, and clearly indicate the auto manufacturers’ trust in current solutions. They are also ready to be part of autonomous driving systems because they communicate with their environment through a CAN or Flexray communications bus. These computer signals will not distinguish if a turn or acceleration command was originated by human action or by an electronic control unit that decides what to do based on maps and sensors.

 

But what will the future entail? What electronic systems and underlying silicon solutions can enable autonomous driving to become a reality in production models? Freescale and its partners have paved the road with hardware and software solutions to achieve this as soon as 2017.

 

The market is ready to adopt active safety systems that take the wheel to avoid danger, such as safety brake assist, traction control, and collision avoidance systems. Safety brake assist detects when a potential dangerous situation exists and pumps up the power of the brakes. Studies have shown that even when drivers react in time, they may not apply enough brake to avoid a collision. Collision avoidance systems use radar, laser, and camera sensors to detect an imminent crash. Once the detection is made, the system may just provide a warning or take action autonomously without any driver input. Applications include 360 degree surround view and camera based park assist, cross traffic alert and blind spot detection.

 

People will remain skeptical handing over control of their vehicle to a computer, but as I’ve explained above, the foot is already in the door for most OEMs. Slow, useful, and practical implementation by OEMs may just be the key to mainstream acceptance. Driving a car can be one of the most dangerous, risky, time consuming activities in your day. Autonomous vehicles are not about taking control away from the driver, rather, making the process of driving a safer and stress free experience.


Luis Olea is an Automotive Applications Engineer at Freescale Semiconductor


Related Links:

Freescale Advanced Driver Assistance Systems Solutions

Braking and Stability Control Applications

On a recent drive to visit relatives in Bologna Italy, I found myself longing for the autonomous vehicle.

 

My journey from Munich through the Alps is full of spectacular views and breathtaking snowcapped mountains, which unfortunately, I often must forgo as the driver. Cruise control is a helpful tool in managing my speed, but the driver’s mind must still be fully focused on driving. I often find myself fantasizing that my car will take the wheel - monitoring the distance between cars, adjusting speed, and steering automatically - while I take in the surroundings that, until now, I’ve been forced to overlook.

 

As I drive, my mind continues to wander: Are we truly ready for a fully autonomous vehicle? Technically? Legally? Architecturally? Psychologically?

 

As a Freescale engineer, and an automotive enthusiast, thoughts such as these cross my mind on a daily basis. A car with the ability to drive people of all ages, conditions, and needs would be a truly radical social change. People could ‘work’ while commuting (or simply enjoy the landscape), families could choose to live further out from the cities in greener, healthier, and less dense areas. Physically impaired drivers could maintain greater mobility, limiting the cost on taxpayers while opening up new freedoms.  Pollution could be reduced from more efficient driving methods on major roadways. As we are looking at the autonomous sphere, what gaps must we fill? And what is the role of Freescale in all of this?

 

The road environment is densely populated with actual or potential hazards – other vehicles, people, weather, changing situations – and autonomous cars must be in constant communication with each other in order to keep the driver safe. From a communication/infrastructure perspective, which communication link and protocol will emerge to allow this vehicle-to-vehicle or vehicle-to-infrastructure system to become a reality?

 

  • Dedicated Short Range Communication (DSRC) was conceived for auto in the form of 802.11p, which can theoretically handle up to 2,000 connected vehicles with a total bandwidth. Although contained and manageable, the absence of a standardized infrastructure has left the technical community skeptical of this technology.
  • LTE and even more powerful 5G technologies bring the promise of capturing a large amount of data with shorter, more controlled latency.  The technical community has raised questions whether 5G providers will allow part of their highly profitable bandwidth to be used to ensure safe operation, essentially trading safety for profit.
  • Even the common GPS signal can be challenging. GPS signals must secure a resolution of one meter or less, and the algorithms must use the statutory quality of the signal to be able to infer decisions before having a legitimate safety aspect.

 

Developing an electronic control unit (ECU) for autonomous vehicles implies using state of the art standards, like ISO26262, but product liability and legal relevance remain the “holy grail.” We need more platforms that can enable multiple partners to develop products and innovative ideas behind the initial concept. It is not only the hardware but the entire ecosystem that counts (Freescale’s i.MX line is a great example of this).

 

It’s possible that in ten years’ time, I will be enjoying a panoramic view of the Alps while traveling to my homeland? At least I hope so.  In the end of course, it’s about how we make the most out of our available time with our family and make our lives safer and more comfortable.


ADAS.PNG.pngFreescale’s approach to the autonomous vehicle

To build the self-driving car will be a collaborative effort. No one company will reach this goal on its own. At Freescale, we’ve selected a broad range of strategic partners, such as Green Hills Software for its strong competence in secure and safe operating systems, and Neusoft for its competence in object cognition software technology. (See this release that details Freescale's collaboration with Neusoft and Green Hills for ADAS vision applications.)

 

In the autonomous vehicle, the capacity to process quickly and efficiently is a key element to success. Freescale has developed fundamental processing blocks to accomplish this with our radar signal processing toolbox and image signal processing block. We also license the APEX engine for image cognition processing from CogniVue, for which we are creating an entire software development kit. Also, leveraging the latest GPU from Vivante ensures diversity of hardware and enhanced graphics capabilities.

 

The decision to support our heterogeneous integrated IP set with a common standard language, namely OpenCL adopted by APEX, GPU and ARM neon, should give a sense of Freescale’s vision - openly enabling any potential software developer by using a nonproprietary language dedicated to parallel processing.

 

Lastly, Freescale’s Layerscape family allows us to offer the entire range of computational depth where needed without diminishing our strong safety proposition; and is competent in both network connectivity and system high bandwidth inter-processor links. We complement this with 24-7 reliable networking technology.


The road ahead in perfecting ADAS technology for the fully autonomous car is long and winding, yet Freescale is well equipped to compete, thrive and succeed.

 

Davide Santo is an ADAS Product Line Manager at Freescale

 

Related links

Freescale and Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS)

Freescale i.MX applications processors

Freescale Layerscape family

Freescale's collaboration with Neusoft and Green Hills for ADAS vision applications

Green Hills Software

Neusoft

Qorivva 32-bit MCU for ADAS applications featuring signal processing toolbox

Image cognition processors, featuring APEX engine for image cognition processing from CogniVue

Vivante

In a previous Freescale blog post, “The Five S’s of IoT,” Steven Nelson laid out the five S’s that are key to the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT): Simplicity, Staying Power, Stability, Security and Standards. I would like to expand that idea to include an additional S: Smart. “Smart” IoT systems will prove an important success factor for mass IoT adoption. Smart IoT system solutions are based on “Smart” software platforms that can be characterized by 8 A’s.


Smart IOT Gateway.jpgAutomated Remote Provisioning and Management – Typically, this is cloud-based, from initial installation and configuration to management. The ability to support remote monitoring, tracking, management and control is critical. Smart sensor devices and smart gateways can and must be remotely managed, serviced  and sustained .

 

Augmented Reality – This can take many forms, including easy-to-use human-machine interface (HMI), gesture user interface, voice in/voice out with natural language analysis/interpretation, and data/knowledge mining. Adaptively is also important. Products will have a learning mode with dynamic, on-demand real-time rule-based adjustment.

 

Awareness of Context and Location – Smart IoT system solutions are customizable by context and location. Smart software behaves differently according to who, when, where, etc. This level of rule-based abstraction provides additional simplification and ease of use.

 

Analyze, Take Action - Smart IoT systems have balanced local storage that allows analysis, local processing and data/event filtering at the sensor node and gateway level, as well as making localized decisions and taking actions at the cloud level. This enables faster response and lower latency rather than always going to the global cloud for action, which in turn results in more intelligent, selective transmission of sensor data so as not flood the cloud with Big Data.

 

Automate – Smart IoT products will improve efficiency by automating and streamlining processes through automated monitoring and control.

 

Anticipate, Predict - Smart software understands the user and knows their usage history. It then anticipates, making relevant predictions based on context and use history. This can help deliver targeted sales and marketing solutions and services.

 

Autonomous – A truly smart system independently makes informed decisions and appropriate actions with a self-governing, self-organizing ability. Autonomous systems are usually rule-based with a knowledge-based reasoning ability. Smart devices can “discover” each other and can inter-operate (Collaborate) together. In addition, future smart devices and smart gateways are connected through Software-Defined Network (SDN), this facilitates the entire end-to-end network be visible and manageable as an adaptive smart system, so high availability (HA) such as auto-failover and load balancing can happen dynamically to shift traffic load from one equipment to another.

 

Attractive – Sensory attraction is important too. Smart products must have a pleasant look and feel, while also delivering a strong user experience.


Smart IoT software platforms include rich M2M connectivity, cloud connectivity and are equipped with rule-based automation that contributes to simplicity and user-friendly interfaces. Smart software abstracts hardware complexity, so the hardware is more transparent to the user, and become simpler and easier to use.


The smart Freescale one box IoT gateway platform includes message-based RESTful API for synchronizing with cloud servers through “request vs publish” types of message-based interfaces (e.g. CoAP – Constrained Application Protocol).


As mentioned by my previous blog post – I like to say that the “I” in IoT also stands for “intelligent” networks. Smart IoT gateways are also SDN-enabled with an OpenFlow agent that allows smart sensors and gateways to be visible and managed by a centralized OpenFlow controller.


Smart IoT systems, based on the above smart IoT software platform, will help accelerate the rate of IoT adoption.

 

 

Dr. Kwok Wu is Head of Embedded Software and Systems for the Digital Networking division at Freescale Semiconductor

Imaginary Situation

THREAD PROTOCOL CONNECTIVITY FREESCALE.PNG.pngImagine that you are at work and getting ready to leave for home. You need to get home to let Spot (your dog and best friend) out because he’s been inside all day. Just when you’re leaving, a co-worker comes by and lets you know about an impromptu happy hour at a new bar that you’ve been wanting to check out. Everyone is going so you immediately say "yes!"


Wait! What about Spot? Not only does he need an outdoor break, but it’s been a hot day and you’re worried about the house being too hot. Bummer, guess you can’t go after all. How could this situation play out differently?


The Internet of Things

With the Internet of Things, or the Internet of Everything, there are many terms that have been used to describe the idea of having a “smart” world where devices have intelligence through connectivity. The idea of IoT has been around for a few years, but the technology and infrastructure have not truly been available until recent years. The growth that industry analysts have projected now seem truly achievable - tens of billions of units by 2020. That’s huge!


IoT covers many markets including healthcare, factory automation, retail and automotive. But, the area that IoT will impact persons like you and me the most, is in the home.


Today, we have the right hardware technology which is starting to truly be affordable to the average consumer while the software technology to enable the “Internet” in IoT is evolving.  More and more dots are there but the thread to connect them in a way to make a truly smart environment is missing. That’s why seven IoT industry leaders, including Freescale, have joined together and created Thread Group.


Thread is a networking protocol that solves the challenges associated with having a truly connected home. Thread allows simple, direct connectivity from edge devices to the cloud and to each other to create simple, secure and low-power connections between devices in the home with the ability to scale to hundreds of devices.


You may ask, doesn’t that already exist? Places like Home Depot and Lowes have displays of a connected home involving thermostats and security surveillance devices. Yes, these things exist, but are they ready for the mass market? 


Let’s ask some basic questions:

How easy is it to install? Setting up the connectivity in some cases is a technical challenge and not easily implemented by most people. Also, is the network secure? How many different items can it connect? Can these devices talk to each other? What about to your battery operated devices? How long will a charge last on these if they are connected to your home network? These are all real challenges today. Thread was created to address them.


Thread will solve these challenges because of the following reasons:

  • Reliable networks. Thread offers robust self-healing mesh networks that scale to 250+ devices with no single point of failure. Devices are ready when people need them.
  • Secure networks. Thread networks feature secure, banking-class encryption. Thread closes identified security holes found in other wireless protocols and offering worry-free operation.
  • Simple connectivity. Thread devices are simple to install with a smartphone or tablet. Consumers will be able to connect smart devices in the home to each other and to the cloud, allowing easy control and access from anywhere by using a simple, easy to remember key (you won’t have to write down a 16 digit alphanumeric key and save it somewhere!)
  • Low power. Thread supports battery-operated devices to be part of a home network. This allows the devices that you use every day – including thermostats, lighting controls, safety and security products – to be a part of the network without requiring constant charging or frequent battery changes.

 

What does that actually mean? Think back to the scenario I painted in the beginning.


Seven Being Patient.jpgNow, when your co-worker invites you to a last minute happy hour, you say, "yes." You use your smartphone to activate the dog door at home, change the thermostat setting and turn on the fan. You can then pack up your things and head out to meet your friends. When Spot goes outside, you get a notification on your phone. You also get a notification when he goes back in so you know he’s safe.

 

 

Worried about the safety of your home? Your security system is already enabled and connected to your dog door. If something or someone besides Spot tries to open the dog door, it sends a message to your security system which then sounds off an alarm and sends you an alert. You’re on your way to the bar and get a notice that Spot is safely back in the house. When he’s back in the house, you check the amount of food and water he has through your smart Doggie Diner and push a button to dispense more of both. As you’re enjoying the evening with your co-workers, you decide to stay a little longer and have dinner, too. Since its getting dark outside, you use your phone to turn on selected lights at home because you know Spot is scared of the dark. After a fun evening, you head home and are greeted with lots of kisses from Spot


Pretty cool scenario, isn’t it? This is the type of lifestyle that Thread will enable.


Sujata Neidig is Business Development Manager at Freescale & VP of Marketing for Thread Group

 

 

Related links:

Freescale and the Internet of Things

Freescale Kinetis W series MCUs

Freescale and Thread

Thread Group

In my last blog I talked about smart homes and smart cities, two of the better known, up-and-coming Internet of Things (IoT) areas. As I noted, today, smart home product makers are putting significant emphasis on style and design elements as well as “prestige”. As an engineer with 30 years of experience, I realize I personally like to put more focus on substance over form. With four kids (ages 15 and up) living at home, I also realize that products with a high focus on prestige can go out of style quickly to be replaced by the next product which catches fancy. We literally have a closet full of old computers and video gaming systems. My wife can’t wait until September to get rid of her “old” iPhone 5s to replace it with a new iPhone 6. Three years from now, will we look back at today’s initial home automation systems and compare them to the original Altair computer? Nothing more than a trivia question.

 

For this blog, I wanted to explore the opposite end of the IoT spectrum, namely “smart concrete,” the use of sensors in the comparatively boring world of physical infrastructure. Smart concrete is where the projected big numbers for IoT can start to add up. A single large bridge could have several thousand embedded sensors measuring vibration and linear displacement (cracks). A recent USA Today story reports that over 65,000 US bridges are in need of repair. At 1,000 crack sensors per bridge, that would mean 65 million sensors would be needed just for US bridges requiring upgrade and repair. Extrapolate that number out to global bridges, highways and roads, and it seems safe to assume the total available market is indeed going to be huge.

 

Crack sensors are only one type of sensor. Add in sensors for ice, liquid on pavement, pollution, noise, weather, and vehicle presence, and the count will skyrocket. Follow up in a few years with more advanced sensors for use with autonomous vehicle networks and some of the “hype” numbers being thrown around for IoT seem completely believable in the next 10-20 years.

 

Big numbers mean unit cost will be a major consideration. However, the BOM cost probably won’t be the biggest challenge to total cost of ownership. Replacing batteries every few years in 1,000 crack sensors on a single bridge won’t be cheap. Any sensors physically buried in the concrete will need to last at least 10 years, probably much longer on structures such as dams.

 

JindoBridge.PNG.pngIf you have ever had the misfortune of needing to jackhammer out a broken pipe on your property you know firsthand the cost difference between a clogged sink and a major unexpected expense. Think about that in the context of doing a mass software upgrade to 10,000 sensors in a dam when something goes wrong and the sensors are inadvertently “bricked.” Oops!

 

Millions of nodes needing to be close to 100% reliable for many years, super-low-power consumption, the need for security and pressure to keep costs down all make for some unique engineering challenges. This is just for the sensors required to measure slow-moving events such as icing, pollution, flooded roadways and cracks.

 

Even more challenging will be the sensors used from the infrastructure side in conjunction with Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) and autonomous vehicles which will require real-time capabilities similar to industrial automation (except controlling vehicles filled with people instead of cans of soda).

 

The good news: a lot of innovation and engineering work still remains to be done, and Freescale has many of the pieces coming together for smart concrete. Super low power nodes with secure low power lossy connectivity, long term support commitments, scalable gateway technology from i.MX applications processors to QorIQ communications processsors with the ability to manage millions of nodes, hard real-time support for vehicle control and industrial automation are part of our product portfolio today. Add in some of our continued investment in key areas such as fail safe over the air upgrades including ROM’d boot code, security with comprehensive tamper detection and crypto acceleration, advanced sensor fusion, and low power connectivity with high density ZigBee and 6LowPAN support, and it all starts to seem possible.

 

Wouldn’t it be awesome to be one of the engineers who work to bring it all together to create some high engineering content products which are actively in service for 50 years instead of three!

 

Bill Krakar is a Freescale IoT product manager.

 

Related links:

What’s so different about smart homes and smart cities?

Freescale and the Internet of Things

Kinetis L series MCUs

Freescale Xtrinsic sensors

i.MX applications processors

Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS)

QorIQ communications processsors

 

Image source: Jindo Bridge, Wikipedia

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