Gecko SoCs Pair ARM with Multiprotocol Radio

Ultra-low power processor developer Silicon Labs released a new series of system-on-chip (SoC) devices in its wireless Gecko portfolio at Embedded World today. Flex Gecko handles a variety of proprietary protocols, the Blue Gecko family adds Bluetooth Smart connectivity to that flexible base, and Mighty Gecko adds Thread and Zigbee on top of that. All three families include an ARM Cortex-M4 processor, sensor interface, and energy management, and are both pin- and software compatible.


Flex Gecko development kit (Source: Silicon Labs)

The goal of the new Gecko families is to reduce development cost for wireless IoT, Silicon Labs' VP of marketing for IoT products, Daniel Cooley, told EE Times in a phone interview. “Customers are moving away from choosing processors based on millamps or kilobytes,” Cooley said. “They're basing their choices on total cost of ownership.” For wireless devices, this total cost includes both product development and the effort to gain the necessary regulatory and industry certifications. “Wireless development can be tough,” Cooley said, “with antenna design and matching, field updates to protocols, certifications, and the like.” To help developers, the company is offering an extensive support structure. “Silicon Labs has a tool for each of these challenges,” Cooley added.

Support starts with the SoC design itself. The SoCs in the wireless Gecko families incorporate both sub-GHz and 2.4 GHz radios along with an ARM processor running the appropriate protocols. The radios include integrated power amplifiers providing 19.5 dBm of output power and on-chip baluns for antenna matching, eliminating the need for these additional devices in a design. The protocol stacks running on the processors, according to Cooley, are the company's own, not third-party offerings. “Software doesn't just plug together,” noted Cooley, “so we use our own and thus eliminate integration issues. And because we participate in the standards bodies, we can look ahead and anticipate new requirements.”


Wireless Gecko block diagram (Source: Silicon Labs)

Developers using the wireless Gecko SoCs also have a wide range of tools available from Silicon Labs to support their efforts. The company's Simplicity Studio provides a “one stop shop” for application development, including graphical peripheral and chip configuration, stack configuration, high-level APIs, and an Eclipse framework for integrating code-building tools such as Keil, IAR, and GCC. Device documentation also links to Simplicity Studio so that it is available at the developer's fingertips. The company also provides a number of other tools, including an energy profiler and a radio network analyzer.

Complete reference designs (even the plastic parts) will be available to support developers. “Because we wrote our own software,” Cooley noted, “we're able to create many use cases.” He pointed out lighting, home automation, and remote control as examples and indicated that, in some cases, the reference designs have been pre-certified to regulatory and industry standards. “We are seeing a movement in the IoT towards open network management ecosystems, like HomeKit, AllJoyn, and the like,” Cooley said. “We help developers get certified by these network management groups.”

Several different development kits are also being offered for the wireless Gecko devices. A three-node mesh networking kit is available for the Mighty Gecko — along with a two-node proprietary network kit for the Flex Gecko — provide developers with all the hardware needed to exercise prototype systems. There are also two single-node Bluetooth Smart kits for the Blue Gecko.

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