Silicon Labs has an unusually broad perspective of the smart home market, being we provide both chipset and wireless solutions to a vast array of global smart home customers. But what makes us especially unique is that we support most all of the major smart home connectivity protocols, and even offer solutions to help customers create their own wireless protocols. Wireless connectivity is complicated, but it’s getting remarkably easier for both designers and users as time goes by. And as it does, the smart home is getting much smarter.
The smart home market as we know it initially started in the early 2000s, and for many years, the question has always been – when is mass adoption going to happen? No one knows for sure. Yet we are confident adoption rates will increase substantially this coming year. According to Statista, there are already nearly 35 million smart homes in the U.S. in 2018, with growth expected toward 60 million homes by 2023. People have been using smart home thermostats, lighting, and security products for quite a few years now, but the smart speakers recently introduced have been an explosive driver for the smart home. More than 50 percent of smart speaker owners have gone on to buy other smart home products, and Gartner predicts that 75 percent of U.S. households will have smart speakers by 2020.
So what’s coming up in 2019 that will be different for the smart home? Silicon Labs shares some predictions below.
Professionals take a backseat: One of the shortcomings of the smart home thus far has been the tendency for people to buy the application they want, but once they get the package home, the installation is too complicated and an outside professional is required to install the device. Thanks to new highly interoperable smart home platforms, such as the Silicon Labs Z-Wave SmartStart, the installation of products is becoming surprisingly easier. Ring is a good example of a new plug and play security smart home product that just needs to be plugged in, then the user sees the application on their phone. It’s that easy.
AI and smart home unite: Wireless and mesh connectivity solutions have improved dramatically in range and power consumption in recent years, enabling low-costs sensors to be deployed across the home (and yard). No longer limited by short ranges and power constraints, ubiquitous devices are giving the smart home the ability to react intelligently to changing conditions. The smart home has already seen the first iterations of AI, otherwise known as context-aware intelligence, in consumer products, and more are on the way. A popular example is the smart thermostat that learns family preferences. New smart thermostats will sense how many people are in which rooms of the house and adjust accordingly. They will know what time of day energy prices drop and react for optimal economy.
Insurance industry adoption: More than ten years ago we saw smart home thermostat products disrupt the utility market, and we’re going to see those kinds of dynamics happen again in other markets. Smart home insurance IoT products are something to watch closely this year. Context-aware smart homes are allowing the insurance industry to move its central business paradigm from reactive claim services in to proactive loss prevention. A draft in the home can be traced to a roof in need of costly repair. Moisture in the garage can distinguish between a simple worn valve or an expensive leak in the foundation. Water Hero, an IoT product that detects a water leak in the house before it escalates, is the first of many new insurance IoT products that will continue to hit the market in the coming year.
Homes get even smarter: Some of the early smart home consumer products centered around video monitoring, yet a more sophisticated sensing is materializing. New smart home products for Aging in Place are a great example. Keeping close watch on older and more fragile family members doesn’t mean they need to be watched via obtrusive video cameras. Instead, data can be collected about elderly daily habits from invisible sensors in appliances, lights, rooms, medicine cabinets, etc. If the data shows unusual irregularities, family members can be notified.
Costs decrease, longevity increases: The beauty of a maturing technology market is as the technology advances, the costs come down, and this dynamic will be no different in 2019 for the smart home. Besides decreasing consumer costs, we’ll also see major gains in battery and low power. A truly smart environment features embedded sensing throughout the entire space, including areas where direct electrical power is either impossible or impractical. Battery operated devices are a necessary mainstay of the smart home landscape. Due to their need for continual battery replacement, service providers and end users often limit the deployment of these devices, thus limiting the life cycle of the system. The recently released Silicon Labs Z-Wave 700 platform is so efficient that it can allow battery operated devices to provide ten years of service on a single coin cell battery. We will start seeing the benefits of this battery development in the coming year as applications roll out based on the technology.
We'd love to hear about what you're expecting from the smart home market this year.
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Using isolated gate drivers as discrete components in system design can reduce overall system costs due to package size requirements. In this blog, we take a look at isolated gate drivers, discrete gate drivers, component integration and various solutions. We also discuss the benefits and tradeoffs to integration and why it’s not always the best solution.
Component integration has been the driving force of the semiconductor industry for more than 60 years. It’s right there in the industry term, “integrated circuits,” and year after year diligent circuit designers, engineers and product marketers look for opportunities to take chips to the next level of integration to reduce cost, shrink device and board size, and minimize bill of materials (BOM).
Why not? There are many good reasons and advantages for system designers to integrate more functionality into IC devices. First is convenience. Soldering down one device is always better than having to solder down two. Next is interoperability. Integrated components are, of course, designed to work together. There is no need to worry about matching digital interfaces, impedances or messy glue logic. Finally, cost is a big incentive for component integration. Cost reduction has been the promise of integration realized now in economical computing systems and low-cost microcontrollers (MCUs) with an ever-increasing slew of functions.
When functions are complementary in achieving a system goal, then integration makes a lot of sense. The integration of high-performance op amps with analog-to-digital converters (ADCs) is a good example. The next step is integrating these analog components with an MCU. Together, they accomplish a system requirement with all the advantages of integration. Now, the further integration of wireless components is the next waypoint on the trail of semiconductor progress.
Integration Isn't Always the Best Solution
Not all integration incurs advantages without significant disadvantages or tradeoffs. In some cases, the better choice for a system design may be to continue with discrete components. Often, the deciding factor in whether to integrate or not is the effect of noise on the various components. Sensitive analog measurement integrated with noisy switching components rarely results in an improved system. Another instance when integration comes into question is when there are parts of the system that are space critical. This is generally related to the parasitic capacitors, loops and inductors in the system. When one parameter must be minimized, it often takes precedence over any advantages that may be gained by integration. Finally, the cost benefit of integration can sometimes reverse. This situation is seen with power MOSFETs where discrete components end up being cheaper than equivalent integrated devices because of the specialized fab process and packaging associated with them.
Isolated Gate Drivers
A common component that exemplifies the advantages of discrete over integrated components is the isolated gate driver. Isolated gate drivers are used when switching high-voltage rails in power conversion systems. Besides the requirements associated with effective driving of switch gates – fast current sourcing, low propagation delay and high transient immunity – there are also distinct requirements associated with the isolation such as package spacing.
There are clear reasons why an isolated gate driver is not a good candidate for integration into its paired system controller. For example, the fast, high-voltage switching of a field-effect transistor (FET) gate is inherently noisy. The gate voltage on the high-side switch travels through the entire range between the lower rail and the upper rail during the typical switching cycle. In some areas of the switching cycle, it can change by hundreds of volts or more in tens of nanoseconds or less. This fluctuation produces huge transients on the gate driver output. Dedicated gate drivers are designed to reject these transients but introducing this noise into the package can affect all circuits present on the die. If those circuits were sensitive analog circuits or time-critical digital circuits, they would be overwhelmed, and their functions fruitless.
Another reason integration is not an option for these components is that the gate driver needs to be close to the switch it is responsible for. The switch used and its associated requirements for heatsink mass and airflow often set the size for the switching subsystem. For switching half-bridges, and especially for full-bridges, integrated components make it impossible to locate the gate driver close to all of the FETs being used – at least two but often four or more devices. When designing a half-bridge or full-bridge circuit, component placement and printed circuit board (PCB) layout is critical to performance. To get the best performance, current return paths and the effect of parasitic elements – stray capacitance and inductance – must be minimized. Parasitic capacitance and inductance are unavoidable but keeping the driver close to the FET minimizes adverse effects.
Finally, the unique creepage requirements associated with the galvanic isolation deter integration of this component. Creepage is defined as the spacing along the package between exposed metal on the outside of the IC. Generally, as the bus voltage increases, the creepage must be larger. Typical creepage for isolated gate drivers runs from about 4 mm to 8 mm and even larger.
In the theoretical case of integrating an isolated gate driver, this creepage requirement places a large burden on the rest of the components. Integration with a system controller would require the package to grow in size and a large area left free of pins or exposed metal that might reduce creepage. This might significantly reduce the peripherals available to controllers that usually have pins around four sides of a device with functions assigned to each. Increasing the package size and accommodating the requirements of the isolation barrier will surely increase system cost.
Silicon Labs Discrete Gate Drivers
We offer several families of high-performance discrete isolated gate drivers. Some include options for single gate drivers that can be placed very close to the power switch. Other families have high-side/low-side pairs, which provide the same benefits of a discrete driver in noise immunity and cost optimization. However, care must be taken in layout of these devices to maintain symmetric parasitic environments.
The Si827x driver family, for example, provides a very high level of transient noise immunity. The device operates as expected even in the presence of 200 kV/ìs common mode transients. Other gate driver families, such as the Si8239x, offer up to 5 kV isolation ratings in packages with 8 mm creepage. Achieving these specifications and distances, while keeping the solution cost-effective, would be difficult, if not impossible.
Integration of components into a more capable single device makes sense in many cases. Integration of analog and mixed-signal functions, memory and high-performance digital logic has been a boon for the semiconductor industry for decades. The integration model falls short in some application cases, though. Gate drivers used in switching circuits for power converters must remain discrete components to keep noise from interfering with system controller functioning and to allow drivers to be placed close to switches to reduce parasitic effects. Using isolated gate drivers as discrete components in a system design can reduce overall system costs due to the unique package size requirements. Attempting to integrate these components creates a distinct burden that can only be addressed with expensive, non-standard packaging.
To get started, check out these isolation development tools.
In 2017, the Bluetooth SIG added mesh networking capability to Bluetooth. An established, trusted technology, Bluetooth mesh demonstrates global interoperability and is well-suited for consumer lighting and home automation applications—think large-scale systems in which tens to hundreds of devices need to reliably and securely communicate. In addition to industrial applications, mesh shows strong signs of growth in many markets, including smart building, and smart home.
Bluetooth Mesh by the Numbers:
Meeting the Bluetooth SIG's Mesh Specifications
The Bluetooth SIG released their mesh networking specifications in 2017 in order to set the fundamental requirements of an interoperable many to many (m:m) mesh networking solution for Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) wireless technology. Any mesh networking solution, model, or device must meet these specifications in order to be fully compliant with the SIG’s standards.
Not only are Silicon Labs’ Bluetooth mesh solutions fully certified by the Bluetooth SIG, we are the only company that has performed Bluetooth mesh performance testing and published the results. When we compared the performance of mesh networking standards between Thread, Zigbee, and Bluetooth mesh, we found that Bluetooth mesh works best when short messages (<=11B) are used, especially for multicast messages.
Silicon Labs Bluetooth Mesh Solutions: Setting the Example, Right out of the Gate
Though any Bluetooth low-energy hardware can be used for a Bluetooth mesh implementation, Silicon Labs’ EFR32BG13 Blue Gecko SoCs, as well as BG13MP and BGM13S Blue Gecko Bluetooth® Module feature several advantages:
Silicon Labs is also the leading producer of Bluetooth mesh hardware and software with low power nodes (LPN). Low power is a critical feature for battery-powered energy harvesting devices such as sensors and switches.
Because Silicon Labs was the first to market with Bluetooth mesh, we have most mature software with the most features for developers. Those dev tools include:
One of our Bluetooth experts, Mikko Savolainen, explains the benefits and features of Bluetooth mesh in this video:
For more information, visit the Bluetooth Mesh Learning Center.
Earlier this month, UK-based RS Components announced the UrsaLeo Pi development kit, aimed at making IoT projects more accessible by combining our Thunderboard Sense 2 and a Raspberry Pi development board. Eric Brown over at Technologic Systems had this to say about the new development kit:
UrsaLeo’s kit, which was recently introduced by Mouser under its original “UrsaLeo UL-RPI1S2R2” name, is designed to send sensor input to Google Cloud for storage and analytics. The kit is designed for Industry 4.0, automotive diagnostics, healthcare, and general data monitoring.
The UrsaLeo Pi offers the same Silicon Labs Thunderboard Sense 2 sensor board found on UrsaLeo’s earlier UrsaLeo UrsaCloud UltraLite, also called the UrsaLeo UltraLite or UL-NXP1S2R2. While the UltraLite kit combines the Thunderboard 2 with NXP’s official development board for its Cortex-A7 based iMX6 UltraLite (UL) SoC, the UrsaLeo Pi uses a more powerful Raspberry Pi 3 SBC.
The UltraLite version offers more better debugging functionality than the Pi, as well as reduced “restrictions on hardware re-use,” says RS Components. However, the Pi version is faster and much cheaper. It costs 154 Pounds ($197) without VAT at RS Components compared to 455 Pounds ($582) for the UltraLite. Mouser’s prices are $195 and $550, respectively.
The Thunderboard Sensor 2 (or Thunderboard 2) board provides temperature, humidity, UV, ambient light, barometric pressure, indoor air quality, and gas sensors. You also get a 6-axis inertial sensor, a digital microphone, and a Hall sensor. The board is equipped with Silicon Labs’ EFR32 Mighty Gecko multi-protocol radio, which supports 2.4GHz wireless technologies such as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), Thread, ZigBee, or proprietary short-range protocols.
The kit is pre-loaded with an OTA-updatable Linux stack based on Yocto Project code. It automatically links up to a pre-registered Google Cloud account. Up to 50MB of data per month can be sent to the cloud platform free of charge.
A customizable dashboard “allows users to view sensor data and launch IoT applications such as storage and analytics,” says RS Components. The dashboard, which can be shared with third parties, is said to streamline the addition of new sensors and support user-definable events to trigger alerts.
Sample applications and APIs are provided to manage sensors, run diagnostics, and share information with enterprise or business intelligence applications.
Some circuits may be damaged if they try to talk to each other, and digital isolators are devices that make it possible for them to communicate without blowing each other up. In this Q&A, Silicon Labs’ Rudye McGlothlin answers a few questions about these devices and techniques for balancing safety and performance.
What is driving the Industrial market to use isolation components in the first place?
There are many needs that drive the use of isolation components. System requirements for component protection, user safety, signal level shifting, and adherence to safety regulations are primary drivers. In all cases the isolation components add value to the system by enabling additional functionality and ensuring safe operation of the system.
When I add isolation devices, what affects does that have on my circuitry?
Improved performance in many cases and, in all cases, additional component safety is achieved. Isolation devices allow for multiple power domains to coexist and communicate, which means that sensitive circuits are protected from switching circuits. Modern, digital isolation allows for massive integration, which means that circuit component count can decrease. Performance, efficiency, size, and cost are all things that can be affected when adding isolation devices.
What are my options when considering isolation components for my application?
Up until the last ten years, designers used optocouplers for their isolation needs, but digital isolation has come a long way since that time. Now, digital, CMOS-based isolation is the technology of choice for isolation tasks in the system.
What is the difference between an optocoupler and a digital isolation device?
Simply put, an optocoupler is a hybrid device that uses LED light to transmit data across an isolation barrier to a light detector. The LED turns on for logic High and off for logic Low. Optocouplers consume high levels of power, are prone to aging and temperature effects, and provide limited data rates, often below 1Mbps.
Digital isolation devices, on the other hand, were created to meet safety regulations while maximizing the benefits of modern CMOS technology. To do this, digital isolation devices use semiconductor process technology to create either transformers, or capacitors to transfer data instead of light. With this technology, performance and feature integration are both improved.
What is the best advice to give someone who is hesitant to make the switch from optocouplers to digital isolators?
Optocouplers, although incorporated in many designs, are based on outdated LED-technology that provides significant output variation over input current, temperature, and age. This reduces performance over the device’s lifetime. Digital isolation components easily provide multichannel isolation solutions with a much smaller footprint, increases system reliability due to a lower failure rate, offer twice the electrical noise immunity, operate over a wider temperature range (-40oC to 125oC), and do not age or degrade over time. In general, the use of a high-frequency carrier instead of light enables low operating power and high-speed operation, which allows for precise timing specifications.
I’m convinced, now what factors go into selecting a particular digital isolator for my application?
Feature set and isolation performance are both factors to consider with selecting a digital isolator. On the feature set side, consider the number of isolation channels and the channel configurations. Timing specifications, such as propagation delay, should be appropriate for your system. On the isolation performance side, it is important to gain an understanding of the isolation rating your system needs. Transient noise immunity, and electromagnetic emission profile are other considerations related to the isolation structure. With the isolation rating, there maybe be package options to consider given the system environment.
What is the biggest challenge a designer has after they’ve decided to make the switch?
The first challenge is to select the correct digital isolator for each application. As mentioned before, each component has its own specifications just as each application has particular needs. Once an appropriate device is identified and designed in, the system designer can proceed with their system evaluation in their typical fashion.
What safety requirements do I have to consider for my application?
Once you’ve nailed down your application’s needs, you’ll want to be sure that the devices meet appropriate Safety Standards as required by end safety agencies such as UL, CSA, VDE, and CQC. These safety agencies use their component safety standards to qualify and either specify a safety component’s one-minute voltage withstand rating, which is typically 2.5 kVrms, 3.75kVrms, or 5 kVrms, or its life-time working voltage, which is typically between 125 Vrms to 1000 Vrms. All of Silicon Labs’ component safety certificates can be requested online at silabs.com.
What is the typical life expectancy of a digital isolator’s isolation barrier?
This depends on the material used as well as its thickness. Standard materials used include polymer-based, polyimide-based, or SiO2-based insulators. In general, though, the life span of the barrier can easily be over 25 years.
What are some of the standard rated voltages I can expect to find?
Depending on the device manufacturer, common one-minute rated voltages are 1 kVrms, 2.5 kVrms, 3.75 kVrms, or 5 kVrms. For surge protection, some devices can reach 10 kVpk.
What creepage and clearance do your products support?
The two most common creepage and clearance requirements that are required by end systems for basic and reinforced insulation needing up to 250Vrms working insulation are 3.2mm and 6.4 mm respectively. In general, Silicon Labs’ narrow body SOIC packages support ~4mm of creepage/clearance and the wide body SOIC packages support ~8mm.
For more information about our digital isolation products, visit https://www.silabs.com/products/isolation/digital-isolators.
Over and over, customers tell us they want a wireless link to just work so they can move on and focus on the application they're designing. This week, we delivered on this challenge with the introduction of Wireless Xpress, which gives designers the freedom to go from out of box to prototype within a few hours – versus months – with no software development necessary.
Wireless Xpress provides a configuration-based development experience with everything developers need, including certified Bluetooth® 5 Low Energy (LE) and Wi-Fi® modules, integrated protocol stacks and easy-to-use tools supported by the Silicon Labs Gecko OS operating system.
The new solution simplifies wireless development and eliminates the daunting task of working in numerous and complicated wireless development interfaces. Today’s IoT development teams are often burdened with importing numerous stacks of software, dealing with hundreds of APIs and complex RF integration obstacles, along with writing hundreds of hours of code. Because of these complexities, wireless development is hard to come by, and IoT companies often need to outsource the development, an extremely costly and time-intensive process that slows down time to market. Wireless Xpress removes the need for wireless development since we’ve already done the work for you.
Then there’s cloud connectivity – an onerous challenge for design teams to build from the ground up. Wireless Xpress provides instant cloud connectivity and has built-in firmware updates, along with the ability to retrieve updates and push them out to devices in the field. This functionality removes the need for our customers to pay for subscription-based services to ensure these updates are managed.
Wireless Xpress addresses all of these challenges head-on without a big stack. We take on as much firmware responsibility as possible, with all configuration occurring in the Gecko API. Wireless Gecko is not codeable, but configurable, freeing designers from the headache of wireless design by getting it all in one box.
Putting Application First, Versus Network
Another challenge solved by the new solution, and especially beneficial for low-power applications, is MCU processing constraints. An MCU in a typical wireless design is handling all of the network processing demands versus application needs, creating a situation where customers are often paying more than they need for an MCU. Wireless Xpress offloads the embedded host processing from the MCU and handles processing demands inside the package, reducing the processing performance required and optimizing the chip-set. With Wireless Xpress, you can use a bare bone 8-bit MCU for applications that would have otherwise needed a 32-bit because of RAM, flash, etc. demands.
Support Down to the Silicon
With the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth modules, Silicon Labs is able to go all the way down to the silicon to find a problem. When you look at other pre-programmed modules on the market, what you find is module vendors are not SoC designers – the silicon in these products is from other companies. Therefore, in the support structure, problems tend to be punted to the underlying silicon vendor. This structure really goes against the ease of use experience. Wireless Xpress gives customers one point of contact for wireless design, making it much easier for support and troubleshooting. It’s our silicon – we control every part of the flow, giving us the advantage to optimize design better than anyone on the market.
Our Bluetooth and Wi-Fi modules are pre-programmed, pre-qualified and are pin for pin compatible with our portfolio of products. And they all run through the Gecko Xpress API, which we have already tested to ensure its reliability and flexibility. We’re taking care of the wireless interface on behalf of the customer and giving them back the 3-6 months it would take to build all of the connectivity from scratch.
So many of our customers seeking wireless connectivity are long-standing, established companies in markets that don’t have the in-house resources nor budget to invest in wireless connectivity talent – these companies’ main agenda is to make exceptional products for their markets. Wireless Xpress gives these companies the opportunity to obtain the wireless expertise they need in one package – giving time back to the developers to worry about their own customer needs – instead of complex wireless scenarios that demand too much time and money.
Wireless Xpress is the latest culmination of our strong customer relationships – we listen and design accordingly. Stay tuned as Silicon Labs continues to deliver the IoT solutions designers want to get innovative and high-performing products to the market as fast as possible.
Learn more at silabs.com silabs.com/products/wireless/xpress.
Recently, we had the chance to talk to Jim Stratigos, founder and CTO of Cognosos, an IoT start-up that has solved a big problem for automotive car dealers and auction operators. Fleet lots such as these – along with vehicle processing centers - can span hundreds of acres, across multiple locations, and can hold anywhere from 1,000-25,000 cars on-site at any given moment, creating significant challenges in locating and tracking these valuable assets. Cars are moved regularly for reconditioning, repairs, test drives, or to get ready for auctioning. Up until now, lot operators used expensive and often unreliable asset tracking technology such as RFID or Wi-Fi, or spent hours trying to manually locate cars throughout the day. Cognosos has completely changed the experience by creating an IoT wireless inventory tracking solution, allowing users to do quick searches online or on smartphones and see in real time the location and movement history of any car on the lot.
Jim explains below how the idea came about, what his team has learned since launching 18 months ago, and shares new solutions the company plans to tackle in the near future.
How did Cognosos get started?
In 2012, in the days before IoT, my two co-founders and I were looking at wireless sensor networks. We saw a lot of academic research in this area, yet few commercial deployments. We had some ideas to make the transition from the lab to the real-world happen. One of the research areas of interest to us was software defined radio (SDR), which has been used in radio astronomy for decades. We realized we could apply the same technology to real-world problems, such as extending the range and battery life of wireless networks. With this idea in mind, we reached out to Georgia Tech (Jim is an alumni and has mentored university start-ups). We started working with the Smart Antenna Research Lab within the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech. We helped the group raise some grant funding to research how to use SDR and cloud-based signal processing to make wireless networks go further and have longer battery life.
Tell me a little bit about SDR – how does this solve range issues?
The nice thing about SDR is that it allows the physical layer of a wireless communications channel to be totally determined by software; therefore, it provides engineers with a clean slate without being constrained by silicon. That’s why this approach was attractive, we were able to pick frequencies, for example, with superior outdoor propagation, we could design our own modulation and coding formats, etc. with the intent to optimize all aspects of the performance. Basically, it gives you a platform to write your way into a physical wireless layer without having to develop custom chips. At the same time, an SDR-based wireless network can be very robust to interference and achieve an order of magnitude higher channel utilization than common wireless technologies.
Did you have a business solution in mind for the technology? Was there a specific problem you saw in a particular market, or did the application come later?
It came later. We were aware of a general class of problems facing agriculture, energy management, waste management, and water management, which all seemed to be a fit for low-cost wireless sensor networks. But it wasn’t clear five years ago which one would be commercially viable. We had the good fortune of having some really smart people, yet not much money, but we were able to rapidly prototype potential applications and show them to potential investors and customers. We were told over and over again that it looked interesting, but it was not really important. So we eventually pivoted and discovered there was a real need in the automotive industry to use wireless sensor networks to actually find cars. As you know, it’s normal for early stage companies to pivot, and we certainly did. We moved away from a broad “we can do anything wireless business model,” and went after a specific problem in a specific industry.
Why did you select the automotive industry?
It was a need articulated by our first customer, Manheim Auctions, a division of Cox Automotive. They came to us with the problem of losing cars. We assumed people were stealing them, but they explained it was the sheer amount of cars in one place combined with the fact that they had to be moved regularly for repairs, auction lane placement, etc. Most of the larger companies like Manheim have been trying all kinds of technologies to solve this problem, such as bar codes, RFIDs and even Wi-FI tracking and cellular systems, yet none of them were cost-effective or could scale. Here was a problem we didn’t even know existed.
What type of business impact feedback are you hearing from customers?
One customer told us recently that the typical 3-4 hours it took to locate a set of cars was reduced to 30 minutes. We have a lot of great data saying its reducing costs and improving the customers’ experience. We are also branching out into other markets where knowing the location of high valued assets is critical to driving customer satisfaction and reducing costs.
When you were developing the platform, were there any unforeseen design challenges?
One of the things that stood out to me is our use of GPS to find the location of the car. Everyone knows GPS receivers demand a lot of power, and we are dealing with battery powered devices, so you don’t want to leave the receiver on any longer than you have to. We naively thought early on that all we had to do was turn the receiver on, get the location, and you’re done. It’s actually much, much more complicated than that. Because of this issue, we ended up writing sophisticated algorithms to take the GPS data from the receiver and determine when it was accurate enough to turn off the receiver.
Tell me about the device itself. How simple is it for the operator to get up and running, and what’s the day-to-day interaction with the equipment?
We put a lot of effort into making it as simple as possible because our customers are not engineers. The user simply scans or types in the VIN number of the car, SKU/unit number, or description into a smart phone, and the car will show up on a map with instructions on how to get to it. Our RadioTrax device is placed on the visor of every car on the lot. It sends a sub-GHz radio message using our patented wireless technology that includes the GPS location of the car any time the car moves by using an accelerometer to detect motion. The devices are also upgradeable over-the-air – we have a unique OTA firmware update technology that simplifies the challenge of updating the firmware. We can do thousands of devices at once.
From an installation standpoint its very simple – our gateways are as easy to install as a router and connect to a simple roof-mounted antenna . We either use our own staff or contract third-party installation groups – some of our customers have even done the installation themselves.
We have both web and mobile applications, which is paramount because the interface is all the customer is going to see.
What’s your experience with Silicon Labs’ Flex Gecko?
In the early days, all of our prototypes were conventional wireless devices with a separate MCU, separate transceiver, drivers, etc. Then we became aware of the Silicon Labs Leopard Gecko, which has a transceiver and an MCU in the same package. When you’re in this business, anything you can do to reduce the number of components and the cost of device, you jump on. Certainly following the introduction of the Flex Gecko product line was an opportunity for us to further reduce the size, cost and complexity of our devices.
Silicon Labs’ level of support has been excellent. It’s important when you’re a small shop like us to work with a vendor like Silicon Labs who is willing to give you the support that you need - answer questions, jump in when there is a problem identified, get the samples you need quickly - that’s critical.
What are some other applications you are interested in pursuing?
When it comes to tracking assets outdoors, there are a number of other sub-verticals similar to automotive. For example, imagine any large outdoor area on hundreds or thousands of acres maintaining valuable things with wheels on them, such as construction sites, airports, ports, etc. We also see plenty of opportunities for our technology to be deployed indoors, such as buildings, retails, sports arenas and healthcare facilities.
What do you think IoT holds for companies managing large amounts of assets? Do you think IoT could manage large scale equipment as a subscription service?
It’s definitely coming. One of the trends we see emerging is the IoT industry encroaching on what was traditionally the RFID market. For example, RFID technologies scan equipment into a job site, but it can’t tell the operator where the tool is actually located on the site. The IoT curve is heading in the right direction, thanks to Moore’s Law and efforts from companies like Silicon Labs who integrate more and more functions onto a single silicon die.
Several years ago, we had the chance to talk to Rich Morris, the founder of Broodminder, a start-up company based in Madison, Wisconsin. Rich created a rugged IoT device to help backyard beekeepers raise more healthy bee hives.
As evidenced by numerous studies over recent years, bee populations have been on the decline for the past two decades. As pollinators of numerous crops, honeybees are averaging more than 33 percent population loss per year. Most experts conclude the loss is caused by a variety of factors, including pesticides, habitat loss, and disease.
Three years ago, Rich took matters into his own hands and raised nearly $30,000 to start his company with an Indiegogo campaign. An avid beekeeper and electrical engineer for more than three decades, Rich created a temperature and humidity measuring system using the Silicon Labs BLE113 Bluetooth Smart Module to measure the overall health of a hive. The following year they added a smart hive scale to the mix.
Hive temperature is critical – a healthy hive where bees are brooding generally maintains a temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit. If the temperature variates much in either direction, it typically signifies there is something wrong with the queen. Monitoring bee hives using Broodminder’s IoT technology makes it possible for beekeepers to keep tabs on the bees without disrupting brooding (larvae and bee development) or honey production. If the temperature data reflects problems, the beekeeper can intervene by replacing the queen, add more bees, or whatever else is required to maintain a healthy hive. The device also alerts beekeepers when the honey-flow process starts, creating a mechanism where they can begin servicing the hives for honey at the appropriate time.
Up until this point, if a beekeeper needed to obtain this data, they had to open and/or take apart the hive, which disrupted the brooding and honey-making process, and posed a risk to the hives’ bee and honey yields.
New Hive Monitor, Half the Cost
Broodminder has sold close to 6,000, $65 internal temperature hive monitors and 3,000, $179 hive scales, enabling thousands of beekeepers to improve the brooding process without dismantling the hive.
This month, Broodminder is launching a new version of the product focused exclusively on temperature measurement at half the price of the original. Broodminder built the new product using the Silicon Labs Blue Gecko BGM11S SiP Bluetooth module, which Rich explained was crucial in allowing the product to be built more cost-effectively thanks to the SiP’s size, price point, and ease of use. Cost is especially important because Broodminder’s manufacturing is entirely local and the company only uses components from the Madison area.
Beekeepers Unite in the Cloud
One of the key benefits of the Broodminder device is it connects to smart devices via Bluetooth, so users can quickly acquire data from their hives and publish the data to the cloud, creating a public database of hive diagnostics. Data is sent to the cloud by either the beekeeper’s cell phone or a dedicated hub created using the Silicon Labs Bluegiga BLE121 module, helping beekeepers track, maintain, and improve the health of bee populations.
Rich said his team is now just starting to find important data patterns among hive owners in the cloud, and he’s optimistic about the future. He says citizen scientist backyard beekeepers are generating and sharing increasing amounts of data at their public domain site BeeCounted.org, and he believes the next step for beekeeping cloud data will be applying AI technology to improve hive outcomes.
Regardless of the future, Broodminder has already made an impact in improving hive habitats, and it’s exciting for Silicon Labs to see our technology applied to environmental conservation.
One of our timing customers sees a real opportunity in the way FPGA-based designs are commercialized and brought to market.
Jim Bittman, principal hardware engineer, founded BittWare in 1989. The company was recently acquired and today is BittWare, a Molex company, with headquarters in Concord, New Hampshire. Back in the 1990s, BittWare was focused on DSP boards—but in the early 2000s the company realized a new opportunity for growth using a new generation of powerful FPGAs. Switching from designing and manufacturing DSP-based boards to those with large FPGAs was not simple, however, as the nature of these devices brought significant engineering challenges for early adopters like BittWare.
FPGAs combine programmable logic, embedded high-speed transceivers, protocol IP controllers, digital signal processing, memory controllers, and a tremendous amount of computational power. FPGAs are truly the brains in modern electronic designs. But to unlock and harness the power of the industry’s latest FPGAs, system designers are faced with a formidable system integration challenge. Designs require network connectivity, high speed serial interfaces to share data across chips and boards, memory, power, timing and other resources. Designers need to develop solutions that can be brought to market quickly and efficiently. And there is also a need to develop customized solutions that are uniquely tailored for different markets and customers.
That’s where BittWare comes in. BittWare develops Intel and Xilinx board-level solutions that combine FPGAs with 10/40/100GbE high-speed networking interfaces, PCIe Gen 1, Gen 2 or Gen 3 connectivity, DDR4 memory, Silicon Labs low jitter programmable clocks and a board management controller for advanced system monitoring. The boards are based upon industry-standard commercially-off-the-shelf (COTS) form factors to ensure compatibility and interoperability with chassis and single board computer vendors. The benefit? BittWare’s customers get a turnkey solution that significantly reduces technology risk and accelerates time-to-revenue.
Another challenge is that different applications often require different frequency clocks to support different networking protocols and control plane functions. BittWare and Silicon Labs worked closely together to address this challenge by building support into BittWare’s software so that their customers can directly customize Silicon Labs’ programmable clocks for their own applications. One common hardware platform can be easily adapted to support a broad range of different applications. The hardware, including clocking, is remotely field-upgradable, so new applications can be enabled quickly via software upgrades.
A broad range of markets are benefiting from these system-level turnkey solutions, including broadcast video, finance, instrumentation, government and military/aerospace. In particular, applications like cyber security, high frequency trading, and high-performance computing in data centers require rapid reprogrammability to support innovative new features and services.
By combining Intel and Xilinx programmable FPGAs and Silicon Labs programmable clocks in their designs, BittWare is powering the next wave of innovation in high-speed electronics design.
To learn more about Silicon Labs' timing solutions, click here.