Kaivan Karimi, Atmel VP and GM of Wireless Solutions, provides insight into the Internet of Things and the role of BLE connectivity.
It has been a year since my last blog at my old gig, and what a year it has been. I am now at Atmel managing the wireless MCUs business unit, and with my team busy building the best in class portfolio of cloud-ready wireless MCUs and MPUs. Last year was a great ride, and things will only get better from here onward, as we now have established a solid IP base, a best-in-class execution engine, and a great ecosystem of partners to collectively offer cost-optimized Internet of Things (IoT) edge-node system solutions.
Six years ago when a few of us in the industry were evangelizing what in those days we called “Industrial Wireless” (and now dubbed IoT), we always talked about role of hierarchical gateways, connecting the “edge nodes” or “things” to the “cloud.” Some of those “things” use your smartphone as their gateway of choice to connect to the cloud, while others will use a new generation of “smart gateways” to manage cloud-based services. Even in the case of the new smart gateways, some of the things connected to them may get “provisioned” using your smartphone. With smartphones almost ubiquitously having integrated Bluetooth Smart Ready, one can see how BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy – aka Bluetooth Smart) plays an important role in the connectivity infrastructure of IoT.
This year’s CES was as amazing as ever with even more attendees, exhibits and technology than in 2014. As usual, a sea of tech gadgets shouting at you while you walking through the halls, “Look at me and remember me because I am the next best things since slice bread and I am here to stay!” And, sometimes that actually happens (HD Television – CES 1998) and sometimes it doesn’t (3D Television- CES 2009).
CES 2015 was a special one for me, and served as a sort of coming out party for our new wireless lineup. There, we announced a pair of products: a standalone Bluetooth Smart SoC and a dual-mode Wi-Fi/Bluetooth platform. (I will spend more time on our combo chip in the near future, but wanted to focus this blog on our BLE chip.)
It started when we met with our engineering team and discussed our target spec for our new BLE SoC. It was simple; last year the small German mixed signal company had the best-in-class BLE solution in the market. Based on the marketing material they had readily available on the web, their solution had the best peak transmit and receive current (less than 5mA), it had the best leakage current of 600 nA (in certain mode), and it was the smallest SoC out there 2.5×2.5mm WLCSP. Furthermore, the solution also listed the usual suspect key applications as smartphone accessories, PC and tablet peripherals, sport and fitness tracking, health monitoring, self-tracking, watches, remote controls, 3D glasses, etc.
As it turned out, by mid-last year the engineering team of the German company forced their marketing team to match their peak active current numbers to the reality of the chip, as well as adjust their leakage current to reality for adequate memory retention. The leakage current listing is related to the amount of memory you need to retain for the modem to go back to the original state after coming back to active mode, and best in class BLE modems need minimum 8K of memory space to retain their state, and anything less than that would require reestablishing the link, which burns a lot more power. Listing your leakage current for anything less than 8K of memory retention is misleading. Needless to say, the spec being advertised for that chip are now different than their original product brief.
In any business best-in-class doesn’t come easy, and is as it is said to be the result of a lot of sweat and tears… So when we told our team that we wanted them to beat those spec by 30%, with samples for March 2015, you can imagine the looks we got in return. The team however took it upon themselves to beat our targets. The result: BTLC1000. Announced at CES, notable features from the press release included:
- Bluetooth Smart solutions set new low-power standards with at least 30% power savings compared to existing solutions on the market in dynamic mode
- Packaged in extremely small 2.1mm x 2.1mm WLCSP package to enable design flexibility for all devices
- Solution can be combined with any Atmel MCU for a complete IoT platform
In the body of the announcement we also mentioned “sub-1µA in standby mode, while delivering the industry’s best dynamic power consumption, increasing battery life by as much as one year for certain applications.” Since this blog is not under NDA, I cannot get into more details on exact numbers, only that they are real, and they do indeed beat the relevant best-in-class BLE product specifications out there by >30%. Like true IoT products, this product is built from the ground up for IoT applications and battery operations, and not a generic modem repurposed and rebranded as an IoT product.
Small footprint such as 2.1mmx2.1mm facilitates innovative form factors for a variety of classes of products, while also enables adding BLE functionality to your existing products using other types of wireless connectivity for provisioning only.
A common misconception for the Internet of Things is that everyone calls IoT the era of “always on” connectivity. However, in reality most of the “things” in IoT spend most of their life in “off” mode, and only based on an event, or predetermined policy at certain intervals of time they wake up, hence leakage current is extremely important. A lot of the BLE-related products use lithium coin cells which are made to work with standard current draws of 1 to 5 mA. There are many factors such as the discharge rate, the discharge profile (constant vs. periodic burst such as burst peak current), operating temperature, humidity, the associated DC/DC converter, etc. that effect the battery life. According to one of our Japanese customers who also was in battery manufacturing business, while these batteries can tolerate peak currents of much higher than 5mA (e.g. the BLE chip from the company in Scandinavia, the one from the Cambridge based company that just changed hands, the one from the company from Texas, etc.), every time that you cross the 5mA threshold, you reduce the life of the battery. That is why less than 5mA peak current matters.
Our BLE solution will be offered using our SmartConnect framework and methodology, which black boxes the complexities associated with using wireless connectivity, and let the MCU programmers focus on their application development, not needing to become wireless connectivity experts to participate in the IoT market.
At Atmel, we are also known for our activities within the Maker community, particularly Arduino users. As a result, we have already started giving access to the Maker community to our wireless products using our Arduino Wi-Fi shield, which was released back in September 2014. Just imagine what kind of innovations can come from tinkerers, hobbyists and developers if you give them access to our BLE Arduino shield. Some of the IoT categories such as wearables, health and fitness, and portable medical electronics, among others, have already chosen BLE as their wireless connectivity of choice to communicate with the smartphones at their gateway of choice. I am sure the Maker community will come up with additional categories.