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Design in the Fast Lane: Integrated Systems

Tom KevanIt’s no longer enough for engineers to produce technically sound sensor designs. Now they have to get their products to market within dramatically abbreviated development cycles. On top of that, designers no longer have the luxury of iterative testing; products have to work well right out of the gate or face the wrath of an unforgiving marketplace.

Some industry pundits attribute these changes in the design environment to the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT). But the fact is that the metabolism driving the consumer market has been gaining speed for some time. What the IoT has done, however, is increase the complexity of even simple sensing devices. Today, a sensor node typically has a wireless transceiver, a processor or microcontroller, a bit of memory and some form of security.

These factors combine to make it impractical for engineers to build their own components. Reinventing the wheel simply isn’t an option — even assembling compatible discrete components has become too cumbersome an approach. As a result, designers have begun to turn to off-the-shelf subsystems that incorporate all of the necessary elements and offer verified performance. To meet this need and to help jump-start design processes, chipmakers have started to offer SoC (system on chip) solutions that incorporate the necessary hardware and software in one unit.

By taking advantage of these integrated platforms, designers combine multiple functions and eliminate many concerns surrounding interoperability, interference, database dependency, transceiver performance and the interconnections between the sensors, processor and radio. In addition, these integrated platforms provide the necessary communication protocols and interfaces to ensure IoT-level connectivity.

While the integrated platform promises to shorten time-to-market cycles, it also streamlines the design process, making it easier for novices. This fits in well with the way the industry is moving. Forbes recently stated that many of the estimated 50 billion connected devices expected to be a part of the IoT in 2020 will be produced by startups. This group of developers will certainly benefit from pre-packaged integrated systems.

A View of the Future

To get a preview of what lies ahead, consider the Artik family of SoCs introduced by Samsung. These platforms aim to support a wide variety of applications, ranging from wearables to smart home appliances. The heaviest hitter of these is the Artik 10, which comes in a 39×29 mm package and includes ARM Cortex-A15 and ARM Cortex-A7 processors, 2GB of DRAM and 16GB of storage, camera and display interfaces, a full complement of digital I/O and analog inputs, and Wi-Fi 802.11 g/b/n, Bluetooth and ZigBee connectivity. All of the SoCs in the family offer multi-level security and power management. As with other platforms in this genre, the Artik family embraces the open-platform concept.

A more recent example, Invensense’s ICM-30630 FireFly provides a three-axis accelerometer and a three-axis gyroscope in a 3x3x1 mm LGA package, taking aim at the mobile market. The ICM-30630 optimizes its performance and reduces power consumption with its impressive processing capability. The turnkey system sports three processors. The DMP3 handles all motion processing tasks; the DMP4 offloads computationally intensive operations, and the ARM Cortex-M0 with its RTOS performs sensor management tasks. The SoC includes both flash and SRAM memory. The FireFly includes a sensor hub that supports sensor fusion, leveraging its I2C port to connect with magnetometers, barometric pressure sensors, humidity sensors, or any other specialized sensors. Unlike the Samsung device, however, the ICM-30630 does not include built-in wireless capability.

Universal Application

While the previous two examples target consumer applications, this design approach is being applied in a broad range of markets. You can see evidence of this in Texas Instruments’ SoC for analog and digital position sensors that aims to simplify the development of industrial robots, elevators, CNC (computer numerically controlled) machines, material conveyance systems and servo applications.

These turnkey systems might meet resistance from design engineers who prefer to build their own, but it’s hard to argue against an approach the cuts both development time and cost.

About Tom Kevan

Tom Kevan is a freelance writer/editor specializing in engineering and communications technology. Contact him via de-editors@digitaleng.news.