For most devices, the on ramp to the Internet of Things means wireless, connecting a microcontroller or SoC via some kind of radio. It seems every merchant semiconductor company and embedded software firm has jumped on board the IoT wagon. There is a litany of chips, modules, operating systems, and protocol stacks already, and the list is growing daily.
That is, if you want to buy something, or borrow an open source module or code. What if you want to design and build a low power chip for something like a wearable device, customizing it to your exact needs? After all, this is a fabless world today, and we don’t settle for just what parts are out there. ARM transformed the world once with processing IP, and is now positioning its resources to help connect the IoT devices its processor cores are being designed into.
As we’ve discussed several times, on chip RF is no longer black magic, but there is still a certain amount of competence needed to make it work. With a depth of experience in radio technology among several founders earned while at Motorola, Sunrise Micro Devices emerged from stealth mode this week. ARM has backed Sunrise Micro with a capital investment and a couple key personnel on loan who know a thing or two about IP development, interfacing, and licensing.
The first Sunrise Micro product in the CORDIO family is a Bluetooth Smart radio IP block, delivered as a hard macro in GDS II with link layer firmware support. The block is designed to an AMBA 3 AHB-Lite interconnect, with host-controller interface RTL to ease synthesis and simulation. There is also support for the radio within an ARM mbed prototyping board, and a separately licensable Bluetooth Low Energy protocol software stack.
Sunrise Micro isn’t just using the words low energy; they’ve taken serious aim at battery powered and energy harvesting devices, designing the first 950mV radio with integrated power management including a capacitive DC-DC down converter for 1V or 3V operation. With remarkably low 6 mW transmit and receive power, optimized sleep and wake-up modes for the host processor, and riding batteries all the way to 1V, Sunrise Micro claims CORDIO BT4 can deliver an estimated 60% improvement in battery life compared to 1.2V implementations common today.
CORDIO BT4 is also designed for simplicity, requiring only nine external components including the antenna for operation. The hard macro is currently optimized for the TSMC 55nm process, a mature CMOS node popular with microcontroller vendors today.
Why wouldn’t ARM just acquire this company? A couple of reasons, the first being openness: ARC, Intel, MIPS, Tensilica, and others have embraced AMBA as their peripheral interconnect for IoT-class cores, opening the door for radio IP that could theoretically run with pretty much any architecture out there. Second is the Bluetooth radio and wearables focus, which many current ARM microcontroller customers are after – competing with them directly would not be good.
The bet on Bluetooth Smart is extremely safe; with every smartphone to connect with, Bluetooth opens an immediate door to billions of users and devices. However, it is easy to see that Sunrise Micro CORDIO likely becomes a complete family shortly, targeting other IoT protocols with an equally ultra-low-voltage radio IP solution.
For wearables and the IoT, in need of reliable and efficient radio IP, Sunrise Micro could be the answer.