The Freescale Technology Forum (FTF) is winding down, but this show has wound up interest in wireless technology by highlighting a range of new projects all based on Freescale chips, of course. Zigbee tools, modules, chips, and technology sessions were out in force with ultra wide band (UWB) prototypes filling the flanks. The technology lab was probably the best wireless test environment because of all the demos going on.
FTF is a Freescale event, so all of its various groups were well represented, from powerful PowerPCs with AlteVec engines to 8-bit micros. Still, the technology lab hosts a wide range of third-party vendors allowing the show to rival smaller industry events like the Embedded Systems Conference in Boston (with a Freescale bias, of course). The technical presentations had the same feel with plenty of Freescale specs, but discussion groups and interviews with users and vendors brought the discussion back to Earth.
Going To Mars
Keynote speakers show up daily. Not surprisingly, Freescale's top management led the charge. However, there were plenty of speakers of note as well. One of the more inspirational presentations was given by Brian Muirhead, Flight Systems Manager for NASA's Mars Pathfinder project. Brian spoke about risk and innovation and took time to sign copies of his book, Going to Mars (ISBN 0-671-02796-4), for long lines of enamored engineers.
The book is a great read, especially for those unfamiliar with the technological leaps needed for the Pathfinder mission. This includes a bouncing pyramid that helped keep the costs down while protecting the six-wheeled, articulated rover on impact.
The Pathfinder mission came in on time and under budget. It set the trend for future Mars missions, including the pair of rovers currently exploring the Martian surface.
Unquestionably, wireless was the hot topic at the show. Zigbee modules, built on Freescale chips unsurprisingly, were being shown by a number of vendors. The technology lab hosts multiple demos without any apparent conflict between demonstration units that has been typical of 802.11 demos at other shows.
One clarification that was stressed was the difference between the IEEE 802.15.4 standard that addresses the physical and link layers and the Zigbee portion that rides atop these layers. Members of the Zigbee alliance presented products, some of which will be in my upcoming hands-on reviews. Talking with these members revealed the robust nature of the system, with some empirical tests pushing well past the limits set by the standards.
TecNova had the first version of their Zigbee module on display (Fig. 1). They had it attached to a very large proximity sensor that would send information back to a central site about the relative position of your hand with respect to the sensor.
Security and configuration were two important topics in Zigbee presentations. The Zigbee stack has built-in AES security. While the presentations stressed the need for this type of security, they did not address other security issues, such as the need for even stronger encryption in certain applications. Stronger encryption is needed because it's possible to crack the code for Zigbee-strength encryption with enough computing horsepower.
Zigbee network configuration has proven to be easier to implement than originally anticipated. Most devices simply incorporate a button and an LED. Programming is as simple as setting up a garage door opener. Get the device near a controller and press the button. Wait for the LED to go on. This only needs to be done once. It will be interesting to see how this scales to thousands of devices.
Power was a key discussion topic when it came to Zigbee. I heard about designs targeted at systems that would last the life of a battery-on the order of seven years. Likewise, there was discussion of techniques used for power scavenging, like the use of solar cells and thermocouples. And you thought that the NASA connection was just with the keynote speaker? Solar and thermal power generation methods are commonly used in NASA projects.
Zigbee's mesh implementations were being hinted at, shown in dark corners and touted at tech sessions. It's clear that this aspect of the technology is ripe and will bear real fruit before the year is out. Icron was showing off a solution based on Freescale technology that provided true USB 2.0 wireless connectivity via UWB (Fig. 2). It linked a standard PC with off-the-shelf USB 2.0 devices like an external USB hard disk drive.
UWB is going to make a big change in many other areas as well. It is an ideal replacement for all those wires used with component multimedia systems. Soon it will be possible to just plug devices into a power outlet and they will be linked wirelessly to other components like speakers, video screens, and amplifiers.
UWB may be fruitful and multiply in the near future as well, with Freescale showing off real hardware using their technology. It remains to be seen whether Freescale and its entourage will be able to hold off the assault from Intel and its minions, or whether we will see a Betamax/VHS fight. Hopefully the DVD-RW and DVD+R fiascos will be heeded, but I doubt it.
A number of vendors showing off Serial RapidIO (often abbreviated RIO). Tundra had demos of their new Serial RapidIO switch chip. Of course, Freescale was presenting their latest PowerPC chip with Serial RapidIO support as well. Even software companies like QNX and Enea were talking about their integration with Serial RapidIO.
Actually, QNX and Enea have a leg up in this market. The QNX RTOS is built on a microkernel design that employs message passing semantics for all services. Enea also uses a message passing interprocess communications system. Message passing systems naturally map to Serial RapidIO's message passing architecture. The QNX RTOS has already been ported to Parallel RapidIO systems and the transition to Serial RapidIO is transparent, so it already runs on newer hardware.
Serial RapidIO was showing up in the discussions and products based on AdvancedTCA, advanced mezzanine card (AMC) modules, and MicroTCA. MicroTCA uses the AMC card. All can utilize a number high-speed serial interface, such as Gigabit Ethernet and Serial RapidIO. MicroTCA still has a way to go, but mockups and prototypes are becoming more common. On the other hand, AdvancedTCA demos were using standard boards. Freescale's multimedia gateway (Fig. 3) utilized MSC8122 DSPs on XMC modules.
The i.MX family was out in force with Freescale showing off the new i.MX31. Its older sibling, the i.MX21, was showing up in third-party booths. QNX had an automobile multimedia center complete with three digital cameras, a DVD playe, and a USB interface for downloading MP3 audio (Fig. 4).
The i.MX31 development board was linked to an LCD screen and streaming video content (Fig. 5) in one of Freescale's booths. This chip has an amazing level of integration, including the ability to support high-resolution camera chips. The power management utilizes a state machine that dynamically adjusts power settings. Check out Dave Bursky's coverage of this chip in a future issue of the print version of Electronic Design.
Sensors, Test, and Control
Freescale was showing off a number of new sensors, but the one that was a hit of the show was the 3-axis accelerometer. National Instruments was showing off the accelerometer with its Compact RIO platform (Fig. 6). It was a hummer. It was also surprising how fast National Instrument's techs were able to get it running. It is a tribute to both the flexibility of Compact RIO as well as the ease of interfacing to this new nanotechnology device. It actually consists of multiple, stacked chips that incorporate both detection and amplification technology into a single package.
There was much more at FTF and I will be bringing much of this to you in future issues of this column, as well as in the Embedded section of Electronic Design. For example, Green Hills Software announced optimizations for Freescale's PowerQUICC II and PowerQUICC III communications processors that have integrated security engines. This significantly improves throughput, often by a factor of four, over software implementations. The support is incorporated into protocol stacks for its velOSity microkernel and Integrity RTOS. Also, keep an eye out for a review of a new multimedia kit courtesy of Microcross, Cogent Computer Systems, and Freescale. It is based on the i.MX21 and incorporates a Macraigor USBdeamon JTAG interface for only $499.
Cogent Computer Systems|