The Internet of Things (IoT) juggernaut has unleashed a flurry of low-power microcontrollers, and in that array of energy-efficient MCUs, one product has earned the crown jewel of being the lowest-power Cortex M-based solution with power consumption down to 35µA/MHz in active mode and 200nA in sleep mode.
How do we know if Atmel Corp.‘s SAM L21 microcontroller can actually claim the leadership in ultra-low-power processing movement? The answer lies in the EEMBC ULPBench power benchmark that was introduced last year. It ensures a level playing field in executing the benchmark by having the MCU perform 20,000 clock cycles of active work once a second and sleep the remainder of the second.
ULPBench shows SAM L21 is lower power than any of its competitor’s M0+ class chips
Atmel has just released the ultra-low-power SAM L21 microcontroller it demonstrated at the electronica in Munich, Germany in November 2014. Architectural innovations in the SAM L21 MCU family enable low-power peripherals—including timers, serial communications and capacitive touch sensing—to remain powered and running while the rest of the system is in a reduced power mode. That further reduces power consumption for always-on applications such as fire alarms, healthcare, medical and connected wearables.
Next, the 32-bit ARM-based MCU portfolio combines ultra-low-power with Flash and SRAM that are large enough to run both the application and wireless stacks. Collectively, these three features make up the basic recipe for battery-powered mobile and IoT devices for extending their battery life from years to decades. Moreover, they reduce the number of times batteries need to be changed in a plethora of IoT applications.
Low Power Leap of Faith
Atmel’s SAM L21 microcontrollers have achieved a staggering 185.8 ULPBench score, which is way ahead of runner-up TI’s SimpleLink C26xx microcontroller family that scored 143.6. The SAM L21 microcontrollers consume less than 940nA with full 40kB SRAM retention, real-time clock and calendar, and 200nA in the deepest sleep mode. According to Atmel spokesperson, it comes down to one-third the power of competing solutions.
Markus Levy, President and Founder of EEMBC, credits Atmel’s low-power feat to its proprietary picoPower technology and the company’s low-power expertise in utilizing DC-DC conversion for voltage monitoring. Atmel’s picoPower technology employs flexible clocking options and short wake-up time with multiple wake-up sources from even the deepest sleep modes.
ULPBench aims to provide developers with a reliable methodology to test MCUs
In other words, Atmel has taken the low-power game beyond architectural improvements to the CPU while optimizing nearly every peripheral to operate in standalone mode and then use a minimum number of transistors to complete the given task. Most lower-power ARM chips simply disable the clock to various parts of the device. The SAM L21 microcontroller, on the other hand, turns off power to those chip parts; hence, there is no leakage current in thousands of transistors in that part.
Here is a brief highlight of Atmel’s low-power development efforts that now encompass almost every peripheral in an MCU device:
Sleep modes not only gate away the clock signal to stop switching consumption, but also remove the power from sub-domains to fully eliminate leakage. Atmel also employs SRAM back-biasing to reduce leakage in sleep modes.
Consider a simple application where the temperature in a room is monitored using a temperature sensor with the analog-to-digital converter (ADC). In order to reduce the power consumption, the CPU would be put to sleep and wake up periodically on interrupts from a real-time counter (RTC). The measured sensor data is checked against a predefined threshold to decide on further action. If the data does not exceed the threshold, the CPU will be put back to sleep waiting for the next RTC interrupt.
Sleepwalking is a technology that enables peripherals to request a clock when needed to wake-up from sleep modes and perform tasks without having to power up the CPU Flash and other support systems. For instance, Atmel’s ultra-low-power capacitive touch-sensing peripheral can run in all operating modes and supports wake-up on a touch.
For the temperature monitoring application, as mentioned above, this means that the ADC’s peripheral clock will only be running when the ADC is converting. When the ADC receives the overflow event from the RTC, it will request its generic clock from the generic clock controller and peripheral clock will stop as soon as the ADC conversion is completed.
The Event System allows peripherals to communicate directly without involving the CPU and thus enables peripherals to work together to solve complex tasks using minimal gates. It allows system developers to chain events in software and use an event to trigger a peripheral without CPU involvement.
Again, taking temperature monitor as a use case, the RTC must be set to generate an overflow event, which is routed to the ADC by configuring the Event System. The ADC must be configured to start a conversion when it receives an event. By using the Event System, an RTC overflow can trigger an ADC conversion without waking up the CPU. Moreover, the ADC can be configured to generate an interrupt if the threshold is exceeded, and the interrupt will wake up the CPU.
SAM L21 MCU board
Low Power MCU Use Case
Paul Rako has mentioned a sensor monitor in his recent post in Atmel’s Embedded Design Worldblog. Rako writes in his post titled “The SAM L21 pushes the boundaries of low power MCUs” about this sensor monitor being asleep 99.99 percent of the time, waking up once a day to take a measurement and send it wirelessly to a host. Such tasks can be conveniently handled by an 8-bit device.
However, moving to IoT applications, which constitute protocol stacks, there is number crunching involved and that requires a faster ARM-class 32-bit chip. So, for battery-powered IoT applications, Rako makes the case for 32-bit ARM-based chip that can wake up, do its thing, and go back to sleep. If a high-current chip wakes up 10 times faster but uses twice the power, it will still use less energy and less charge than the slower chip.
Next, Rako presents sensor fusion hub as a case study in which the device saves power by skipping the radio chip to send the data from each sensor and instead uses the ARM-based microcontroller that does the math and pre-processing to combine the raw data from all sensors and then assembles the result as a simple chunk of data.
Atmel has scored an important design victory in the ongoing low-power game that is now prevalent in the rapidly expanding IoT market. Atmel already boasts credentials in the connectivity and security domains—the other two key IoT building blocks. Its connectivity solutions cover multiple wireless arenas—Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Zigbee and 6LoWPan—to enable IoT communications.
Likewise, Atmel’s CryptoAuthentication devices come with protected hardware key storage and are available with SHA256, AES128 or ECC256/283 cryptography. The IoT triumvirate of low power consumption, broad connectivity portfolio and crypto engineering puts Atmel in a strong position in the promising new market of IoT that is increasingly demanding low power portfolio of MCUs to be matched with high performance.
Majeed Ahmad is author of books Smartphone: Mobile Revolution at the Crossroads of Communications, Computing and Consumer Electronicsand The Next Web of 50 Billion Devices: Mobile Internet’s Past, Present and Future.