Tag Archives: Smart RF

RF Modules: A low risk path to wireless success

It is rare for a day to go by without having at least one conversation with an embedded developer, project manager, Maker / hacker or hobbyist where the subject of the Internet of Things (IoT) and/or wireless connectivity does not come up in discussion.

Today, IoT is certainly a major focus in product development and wireless is a major component of that solution. Usually, my conversation centers around comments from product developers regarding how difficult it is to develop a production ready wireless product on the first pass; it is especially difficult for the growing number of product developers or Makers that are just getting their feet wet in wireless design and development.

Only the very experienced RF designers are willing to start from scratch when beginning a new wireless product design. For the rest of us, we look for proven reference designs and more recently, the first thing we browse for is an off-the-shelf certified module.

In comes Atmel! The company has recognized for a while that RF modules provide a low risk path to success, for those seeking to add wireless connectivity to their product. And, it is this realization that has led to a growing family of RF modules to meet one’s wireless needs in Wi-Fi, 802.15.4, and BLE coming soon.

Examples of 802.15.4 Zigbit wireless modules.

The certified wireless module approach turns a complicated RF design task into an easier, more manageable digital peripheral interface task. Don’t misunderstand me, one still must be careful and adhere to best practices in your embedded PCB design to support an RF module; however, it is a much easier to be successful on the first go-around when using an RF module than it would be starting from a chipset or IC layout and design.

typical wireless module

A typical wireless module with on board “chip” antenna (white rectangle shown in image).

For the most part, the layout of impedance controlled traces, and antenna layout and matching are all taken care of for you when using a module. Usually, the most difficult thing you have to consider is placement of the module on your target or carrier board, such that your placement does not adversely affect the radiation pattern or tuning of the antenna.

Not only does the design become simpler, but the costs associated with getting a wireless device to market becomes lower.  Because in general, all of the fees and time associated with governmental certification testing for agencies like the FCC, CE and IC (Industry Canada), are already taken care of for you. Also in most cases, the modules are shipped with a unique IEEE MAC address pre-programmed into the module’s non-volatile memory, so that each unit has a world wide unique address. By using a module that contains this pre-programmed assigned address, you can avoid the costs of obtaining a block of IEEE addresses assigned to your company.

At first glance, the cost of using a complete pre-certified RF module in a production design, as compared to implementing one’s own chip set design may appear more expensive. However, for those doing this for the first time with a staff that does not have a lot of RF design and certification experience, the hidden costs and time required to achieve the performance your application requires and to get the product into the market, leads to a lot of unwanted surprises requiring multiple attempts to achieve the final goal. Starting with a module helps get the product into the market faster with less risk, and provides a way to get product acceptance, before having to deal with cost reduction activity’s that may require moving from a module solution to a chip set solution.

For those that get to the position where the use of a pre-certified module on a proven product requires a cost reduction, Atmel has a solution ready for you. Each of the Atmel Zigbit modules have complete Altium design files and Gerber files available for free download via the Atmel website. This will enable you to take the exact design files that were used to create the module you were using or considering, and to use these files to devise your own version of that design. You can then have your new chip based layout manufactured by your own contract manufacturer; thus, you do not have to start over from the beginning and you already know that this RF design works well and can be easily certified. Governmental certification of your own board layout would be required, and in the case of the United States, you would be given your own FCC ID assigned to your company for this product.

For those product designers that are experienced in RF layout and design, a module can allow you to create a proof-of-concept product prototype very quickly and with little effort. Once the concepts have been proven and features have been decided upon, you can migrate from module to chip set design for high volume production.

Software developers, Makers, and hobbyists can eliminate a lot of the issues often found when trying to create low volume wireless products by obtaining one of the many Atmel evaluation boards that contain a wireless module.

These boards typically come with a bootloader and with some form of pre-loaded firmware to get you started immediately. You can explore that topic in more detail in an earlier Bits & Pieces post that describes the wireless composer and the Performance Analyzer firmware.

The Performance Analyzer firmware is what typically comes pre-installed on a Zigbit module “evaluation” board. Otherwise, the module itself would come with only a pre-programmed bootloader.

module evaluation board

You can learn more and download user guides / datasheets for the Atmel Zigbit modules via this link.

With the Internet of Things becoming such a focus at this time, you may want to get started with a pair of low-cost wireless module evaluation boards and use this platform to learn wireless connectivity techniques that can be used in your current or future job.  Demand for those with knowledge and experience in wireless connectivity and embedded systems is growing greater everyday.

Whether you’re a Maker or an engineer that wants to create a home project that requires a microcontroller and some type of wireless connectivity, you might want to take a look at the ATZB-256RFR2-XPRO evaluation board that includes the ATZB-S1-256-3-0-C module already mounted on it. This module is based upon the megaAVR microcontroller core and includes an 802.15.4 2.4ghz radio as a peripheral/.You may recognize the megaAVR core as being the same MCU core as used in the well-known and incredibly popular Arduino Uno board. You can use the familiar Arduino IDE for development and many of the Arduino libraries available on the internet will run directly on this module. Additionally, you can also find a bootloader and sample Lwmesh (Light Weight Mesh wireless networking) applications for this module here. (Search for for “ATmega256RFR2 Arduino Solution.”)

Look to our friends at Adafruit and Sparkfun to obtain various sensor breakout boards to complete your wireless connectivity projects.

Do you have big ideas? You can feel confident that with the 256k of flash program memory and the 32k of data sram available with the ATZB-S1-256-3-0-C module, as you will be able to create any Arduino application that comes to mind. And don’t forget, you have an onboard 802.15.4 2.4Ghz radio for your wireless connectivity needs. If you find you need additional features in your development and debug tools, you can simply move to Atmel Studio with its rich set of features.

Calling all Radio Amateurs CQ CQ CQ de NS1C… 

Are you now, or have you been in the past, involved in Amateur Radio? Have you been dreaming about QRP low power radios that are very small, battery operated, a complete radio solution, and cost in the $29 to $39 dollar range? You’re in luck — boards and modules are available that operate in the 915mhz or 2.4ghz radio bands! As a HAM radio operator, you are allowed to take the capabilities of these 802.15.4 radio modules even further than an engineer who is required to create a license free ISM radio solution. You can experiment with additional RF output power and experiment with high gain directional antennas (use the modules with u.FL RF connectors).

Maybe a nice field day project for next year would be to use a low power 15.4 radio from the top of a mountain or high hill and use mesh networking to see how many hops a group of participants can communicate over. Voice communication certainly could be implemented using external analog circuitry and some additional software; however, when getting started, you could stick to digital data communications or use the wireless microcontrollers to control or monitor other components of your Amateur radio station.

Parents teach your children…. or maybe, children teach your parents!

I am sure that everyone can think of many home or science fair projects where a parent and child can work together (hardware / software / documentation) and everyone can learn something new. Heck, in the end, you may actually invent the next great product that your family can introduce to the world!

Your possibilities are endless.

DesignCon 2014, even the badges are cool

So I got to pop into DesignCon 2014, the signal integrity, test, and high-speed schematic and PCB design show here in Silicon Valley. In addition to seeing some great panels and vendor displays, I got to see industry favorites like Dave Bursky, Martin Rowe, and Patrick Mannion. Sure EDN has lots of nice coverage, here, here, here, and here. Most of my analog pals love DesignCon. It’s not just a show with hundreds of exhibitors; it is a conference with keynotes, classes, and panel discussions.

But the thing I love about these UBM shows is that even the badges can teach you something. I noticed the printed part of my badge was paper.


This badge from DesignCon 2014 is printed on paper.

Thing is, when I looked on the backside of the paper there was a thin plastic disk covering up something with a small bump.


In the backside, you can see a small disk in the center. What caught my eye was the small bump at the bottom of the disk.

So what is an analog guy to do but peel back the disk?


Peeling back the plastic cover reveals a spiral antenna and an RFID chip.

The RFID chip spans the end of the loop antenna, while the other side of the circle has the underside connection with 9 vias to complete the loop.


The white cover disk is applied over a clear disk that has a spiral antenna and an RFID chip. The clear disk is printed on both sides so the spiral can form a loop with a back-side connection with 9 vias on each end.


Here you can see that the RFID system is itself printed on a clear disk.


Here is a close-up of the underside trace and the vias on each end. This is all made from conductive ink that is printed on fast and cheap.


A close-up of the chip. It’s made by a competitor to Atmel, so I have covered up the logo or cropped it out from the previous pics. It’s not just a competitor; it is where my boss worked previously.

The RFID chip may not have encryption like Atmel’s RFID chips, not sure if show badges are a secure application. But it still astounds me we can afford to print antennas and chips on paper badges meant to be thrown away after the event.


Here is a side-shot of the RFID chip. It is powered by an RF field you apply to the spiral, and then modulates the energy received to communicate with the transmitter. There is no battery in the badge.

So there you have it. A show so cool even the badges can teach you electronics. The next big UMB Tech show  here in the Valley is EE|Live! which is a super-show that has the Embedded Systems Conference along with some other major attractions. Atmel is a sponsor of the IoT (Internet of Things) track and we are submitting at least one paper. I will be sure to attend as will the hundreds of embedded engineering pals I know in the Valley. And my own Analog Aficionados party is Sunday, February 9th2014. Steve Taranovich is signed up, as is EDN VP/Brand Director Patrick Mannion.

Smart RF with Atmel tech

Atmel offers industry-leading performance for RF devices operating in the license-free ISM frequency bands, including 5.8 GHz, 2.4 GHz, 868 to 928 MHz, 433 MHz and 315 MHz.

“Our devices support both unidirectional or bidirectional data communication to meet a broad range of proprietary wireless industrial and consumer applications such as automatic metering, alarm systems, home control, toys and gaming,” an Atmel engineering rep told Bits & Pieces.

“In short, our Smart RF products include unidirectional devices with a single transmitter, bi-directional devices with dual transceivers and high-performance receivers.”

In addition, all Atmel RF components are designed to seamlessly work together, offering devs the reassurance of error free design, integration and testing.

“Simply put, we integrate all the building blocks you need for both base and the mobile stations in typical remote control and access control systems,” the engineering rep continued.

Key features of Atmel Smart RF tech include:

  • Integrated design – Atmel offers a portfolio of RF devices that deliver the largest link budget in the industry. System level functions such as automatic transmission, frame acknowledgement and hardware security accelerators offload the microcontroller (MCU) to reduce power and computation burden.
  • Broad data rate and transmission support – Atmel devices support data rates from 1Kb/s to 20Kb/s (FSK) and 1Kb/s to 10Kb/s (ASK) in Manchester mode and bi-phase mode, plus other codes in transparent mode with programmable bit ranges.
  • High sensitivity – Low-IF receivers provide high selectivity, blocking and low intermodulation, eliminating the need for bulky blocking surface acoustic wave (SAW filters in remote control units.
  • Low current consumption – In operation, idle, and sleep mode for long battery lifetime.
  • Adjustable output power – Transceiver devices support a power output range from 0 to 10dBm; the output can be adjusted and stabilized with external resistors.

Want to learn more about Atmel’s Smart RF tech? Be sure to check out our product breakdown here.