Looking Inside the SoCs Powering the Future of the IoT

Sensors Insights by Mark de Clercq

While the conversation around the Internet of Things (IoT) has been boisterous of late, many of the IoT applications and devices that are starting to enter the market will have a much more nuanced effect on how we interact with the world, helping us to improve the routines and processes we churn through on a daily basis rather than restructuring them from the top-down.

Take for instance Bluetooth low energy trackers from Tile. This company manufactures trackers that can be affixed to the items we rely upon but misplace most often. Using Bluetooth low energy sensors, these trackers communicates with a wireless device that interfaces with the a proprietary app to alert you to your lost item’s location within roughly 100 feet. To help locate items that may be outside of this range, Tile also operates a virtual “lost and found” network through the application that connects users across the globe to help track down missing necessities.

While helping us stay better collected may not seem like the loftiest of goals, motives like the ones behind this and other successful IoT endeavors offer the perfect use case for how IoT devices are easing their way seamlessly into the public consciousness. They can, for instance, give you the assurance that your missing wallet is only a few clicks away. But the same underlying technology that powers these products exemplifies the technological architecture that will connect IoT devices with broader future implications.

Connectivity between a broad range of devices and sensors is the overarching premise of the IoT – no matter what the scale. Lower power connectivity extends its possibilities by enabling developers to add more functionality to devices that are constrained by power demands while keeping form factors attractive. Add in increasingly integrated components that simplify the development of new applications through a plug-and-play approach and you have the perfect framework to bring new devices to market fast.

 

Fast and Efficient Connectivity is the Driving Concept Behind the IoT

The trackers described above communicate wirelessly with each other using Bluetooth, and don’t demand significant energy to stay active. Enabling this kind of connectivity in a low-energy environment is the linchpin that holds the concept of the IoT together: Wireless devices that have the ability to exchange user data without interruption.

Connectivity is key to effective IoT
Connectivity is key to effective IoT.

 

This long-lasting connectivity is achieved thanks to the underpinning systems-on-chips (SoCs) that power Bluetooth connectivity. In the case of Tile Slim, Dialog Semiconductor’s DA14580 SoC provides the necessary electronic circuits and parts to deliver the processing power that enables the tracker’s Bluetooth 4.2 connectivity in an integrated microprocessor smaller than a button.

Bluetooth low energy was originally standardized in the Bluetooth 4.0 specification and delivers up to 1 Mbps while consuming between 0.01 to 0.5 watts of energy, which translates to roughly half the power of classic Bluetooth. Next-generation SoCs are designed to build upon these economies of scale to deliver Bluetooth LE connectivity that performs better than prior ones in terms of speed while maintaining the lowest power consumption and system cost of any microchip to date.

Chips like the DA14681 have been designed to deliver processing speeds up to 96 MHz from an ARM Cortex M0 processor when a device is active, while saving power when it isn’t by consuming less than one µA when on standby. This level of agility is ideal for managing multi-sensor arrays that can handle “always on” scenarios, not unlike Tile. Next-generation, integrated chipsets will be important when the consumer electronics industry begins wide rollout of IoT devices that monitor things like heart or sleeping patterns, which require long-term, uninterrupted connectivity to collect data, or even industrial applications that require devices constantly communicate with each other along different stages of an assembly line.

 

Seamless Integration Fuels IoT Advancement

These characteristics all speak to the point that as more IoT devices and sensors are deployed in the coming years, a great deal more information will need to be tracked and analyzed. Correspondingly, sensors and devices need to get smaller and longer-lasting to enable developers to deliver new products at a pace that is in line with market demand.

The DA14681 is designed to augment its connectivity features by providing three independent power rails within its integrated Power Management Unit (PMU). These rails supply power to external system components in addition to an on-chip charger and fuel gauge. As a result, the DA14681 can recharge batteries over a USB interface, although the SoC itself is able to power a complete IoT system without the need for additional external power management circuitry.

This and other next generation chips reflect the need for more integrated components to bring new IoT devices to market without creating an innovation lag. Advanced next-generation SoCs must be extremely forward-looking to give developers the tools they need to create fully functional IoT devices with minimal effort. In an ideal scenario, all that’s required is an interface and a battery, and the SoC has the processing power and PMU capabilities to keep it running. These systems offer virtually unlimited computing space to software application developers through a flexible external memory interface.

While new SoCs represent the “best-yet,” with unparalleled integration and flexibility, it’s really only the beginning of where these solutions will go in the future. With the current number of IoT connections set to explode from 6 billion today to more than 27 billion by 2025, this represents a 16 percent compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of IoT over the next decade. The SoCs providing this massive scale of Bluetooth low energy connectivity will need to continue evolving at an equally accelerated pace to keep up with demand.

Going beyond Bluetooth low energy, there are nearly endless possibilities for SoCs to underpin life-changing tech in the years to come if the IoT market maintains its high pace of innovation. The IoT continues to be a constantly evolving and expanding arena for new tech development, and if current estimates are on track, the next generation of IoT devices will be commonplace sooner rather than later.

 

About the Author

Mark de Clercq  is Dialog Semiconductor’s Director of Bluetooth Low Energy Business Unit. Mark joined Dialog Semiconductor in 2007 as Product Marketing Group Manager. Prior to this he was a design engineer at Phillips Electronics and held research and teaching posts at McGill University, where he received his Masters in Microelectronics. Mark also studied Strategic Marketing Management at Harvard Business School.

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