OK, enough with octa-core mobile monstrosities for now. Let’s shift gears to Embedded World 2014 and the lower end of the spectrum, one that will make up the vast majority of devices on the Internet of Things: tiny, low power microcontrollers with integrated wireless connectivity.
There still seems to be some stigma about putting RF into designs, and some of it is justified. One of our readers commented this week that Apple “does not have the know-how” in reference to integrated baseband LTE. On the contrary, I’d say: Apple can buy any IP or talent they want. Their reluctance stems more from the realities of supply chains and multiple carrier qualifications facing different requirements in worldwide markets, not a technology issue per se.
RF designs still need proper care and feeding and regulatory clearance. We continue to see strides in RF integration – with attention now turning to the microcontroller level. This is especially true for protocols that can be dropped on chip via an IEEE 802.15.4 radio, such as 6LoWPAN and ZigBee. The challenge for companies is to deliver wireless in a small package, using minimal power, at a low cost – and then, enable solutions with software.
I think most software types recognize the advantages of 32-bit cores for the IoT. This is especially true moving toward the future with needs like IPv6 addressing, advanced protocol stacks like ZigBee Smart Energy Profile 2, and stronger encryption for security which is becoming more important with every passing day.
With all that to consider, one of the bigger “smaller” announcements at Embedded World was Atmel SmartConnect. The SAM R21 is an ARM Cortex-M0+ core with an integrated 802.15.4 radio; the most aggressive version comes in a 32 pin 5x5mm package, and in industrial temperature grades up to 125C, with the family starting at $2.75 in 10K quantities.
Integrating a radio on an MCU isn’t exactly news – Atmel has been at this for a decade, others have followed suit – but IoT-ready software at these package sizes, power consumption, and price points is. The software buzz at #EW14 came from ThingSquare, running their open source Contiki OS and 6LoWPAN on the SAM R21 Xplained PRO board. (For those unfamiliar, the Contiki community refers to itself as “the open source OS for the IoT.”)
Don’t be deceived by the board size, set up for convenience of finger-sized buttons and inexpensive connectors for development use. That’s the SAM R21 in the center (in the slightly larger 48 pin 7x7mm variant), one chip that gets designers on the IoT quickly if the target is ZigBee or 6LoWPAN.
That was the easier part. What about the Wi-Fi version? Press releases sometimes require careful reading between the lines plus an understanding of competitive space. Getting Wi-Fi down into this MCU range of small, low power, and inexpensive is a bit more challenging right now – most MCU implementations today rely on a 4-wire SPI connection to a separate Wi-Fi part. Atmel was somewhat vague referring to a “single package” SmartConnect Wi-Fi module, and their wording suggests a similar two-part approach.
I’m presuming Atmel knows what they are up against for Wi-Fi modules popular with IoT types, and is bringing a solution that saves space and BOM cost in comparison – we’ll see as they release details. We do know they are continuing to work hard on the Studio 6 IDE, supporting the SmartConnect family in wireless “composer” capability with C/C++ modules. As I’ve said before, silicon is only the enabler – code is the product.
The spellbinding story of our time is how embedded is now swinging heavily toward the IoT, an unmistakable takeaway from Embedded World. Microcontrollers are changing to address intelligence plus connectivity to be part of this new tale.