2013 was a big year for embedded systems; a lot of products came out that will shape the future of this industry. Here's some that I found interesting.
NXP's LPC4370 microcontroller
NXP's LPC4370 microcontroller is the first in what I expect to be many inexpensive MCUs with multiple, and dedicated, cores on board. Though other parts have more than one core the 4370 is a bit different. It has a Cortex-M4 for the heavy lifting, with hardware floating point and SIMD instructions. A Cortex-M0 is there to provide general co-processing, or to take over in a lower-power mode when the M4 is sleeping. Nothing really new here; that's like their 4350. But there's a second M0 dedicated to controlling just the SPI and SGPIO peripherals. Neither general processor needs to be bothered with these devices, and using an M0 means very high speed and generalized access to the I/O. Even better is that the second M0 has its own memory so is running off the main bus. The desktop processor business has been abuzz about multicore for some time, but I think in the MCU world the landscape is shifting to the use of many dedicated small CPUs for I/O control.
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Crypto engines have been around for a few years, and have been integrated on a few microcontrollers. With the furor this year over government information vacuum cleaners I think that we will see crypto become much more common — and start to be actually used in non-banking type applications that have any sort of connectivity. This year Microchip released their PIC32MZ family of 32 bit microcontrollers, many of which have on-board cryptography, which offloads what can be a complex algorithm from the CPU. Many other companies will follow. Perhaps NSA has inadvertently done the semiconductor industry a favor!
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Touchstone's new TS3300 PMIC
Low-power is increasingly important, and vendors are releasing partswith astonishing performance. Touchstone's new TS3300 PMIC is anexample. It can boost an input voltage as low as 0.6 V, and can supply75 mA with only 1.2 V in. Their TS3310 requiresonly 150 nA.
Analog Devices ADP172
Analog Devices is playing in this field, too. Their ADP172 regulator offers an input voltage down to 1.6 V and has a 50 mV drop out, and under a microamp of shutdown current. Think of the possibilities in systems powered by LiMnO2 batteries. It's available in a 1 mm square four ball WLCSP package. I have a couple and want to do some prototyping, but have no idea how I'll solder to them.Measuring power consumption
Vendors have been providing tools to measure power consumption and, insome cases, relate it to the code. I've reviewed a number of these, likethe REAL Ice Power Monitor from Microchip,Agilent's N2820A current probe,IAR's I-Jet,the uCurrent,and the Real Time Current Monitor.Now that battery operation is hugely important for so many systems it'sclear that these sorts of tools will become very important.
REAL Ice Power Monitor from Microchip (above).
Agilent's N2820A current probe connected to a scope and eval board (below).
This year Fairchild Semiconductor predicted that there will be atrillion sensors deployed by 2020. Smart phones now have all sorts ofstrange sensors on-board, like humidity detectors, which are there inthe hopes that some bright developer will use them to create a killerapp. It's a strange market when a product is sold to the masses without aclear idea why some of the components are on the board. (Madman Muntzmade his fortune the opposite way, cutting components out of his TVsuntil they stopped working.) InvenSense, for instance, sells a lot ofmotion and sound sensors, including a nine axis (3-axis gyroscope,3-axis accelerometer and 3-axis compass) device with on on-board motionprocessor IC that has a simple I2C interface. The future will seeus surrounded by a field of sensors connected to very low power, butquite capable, MCUs.
Sensor from InvenSense .
On the software front, LDRA unbundled their unit testing software.LDRAunit is available for a price on the par of a decent IDE. It does a basispath analysis of all, or a subset, of the functions in a program andgenerates all of the unit tests. It will even create MC/DC tests. Ihave seen a 10KLOC program that required 50KLOC of unit tests. The costsavings from automatically generating the unit tests can be staggering.
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One of the coolest things this year, which actually won't be availabletill mid-2014, is Gabotronics oscilloscope watch. Thisis, or will be, a two channel scope with 8 logic analyzer inputs and awaveform generator, all worn on the arm. It will do an FFT and has allof the features one has come to expect in a tiny scope. Unlike thecurrent generation of USB instruments that rely on a PC for display andcontrol, the scope-watch has a tiny LCD display! The specs don't say,but it may even tell time.
Nothing will say “geek” like an oscilloscope as a fashion accessory. But, oh, man, I want one of these.
Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded developmentissues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companieswith their embedded challenges, and works as an expert witness onembedded issues. Contact him at . His website is.