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Electronic Design

Doing The Robot, And More, At ESC 2008

Robots, USB, micros, multimedia, boards, software, hands-on demos...what's not to like about ESC 2008?

Finally heading back home by train towards Philly—and the Phillies just wrapped up the World Series last evening—so that should spice up my pass through the city of brotherly love a little. It is definitely nicer traveling home via train than plane. A five minute wait at the train station, and a five hour ride with lots of leg room and an AC outlet plus great scenery is definitely the way to go.

I’m going to run through most of what I saw in reverse-order so I can get to the fun stuff first—mainly the keynote by James McLurkin that I stuck around for—more on that in just a minute.

First I’d like to make a quick note about attendance. Things seemed on par with last year, although traffic on the show floor was slow at times due to a few sessions close to each other that had heavy attendances. Some changes on food locations and other critical details are likely to change when ESC rolls around again. The feedback from the vendors was positive overall, so some of you kicking the tires are still buyers.

I was surprised by the attendance at Thursday’s keynote. This is the day after the show floor shut down, so robotics definitely draws crowds. Dr. James McLurkin (Fig. 1) was the speaker. I’ve known James for many years and was expecting a neat presentation. He exceeded my expectations and had a small cadre surrounding him after things wrapped up, and everyone had questions rolling off their tongues, including myself.

The presentation was about robots and covered quite a bit of ground. But the bulk of it centered on his work with swarm robotics. This was not your usual PowerPoint presentation, although there were plenty of slides and videos. Onlookers must have been amused by the swarm of robots rolling around the stage floor doing their master’s bidding (Fig. 2). It was entertaining and informative. There were the usual snafus, but the small, almost cube-like robots did their part. They are fun to play with (Fig. 3).

The demos included a simple start with follow-the-leader to more interesting bubble sorts using only localized behaviors. Another demo pulled eight programmers and engineers from the audience to highlight convergence techniques using calculators and interaction between the participants. Now if they could just have done it as quickly as the middle school kids did.

One aspect of his talk was to encourage the audience to support local science fairs, schools, and robotic events to foster science and engineering in our youth. This is something I wholeheartedly endorse. If you happen to be in the Mercer County, New Jersey area shoot me an e-mail. I run the Mercer Science and Engineering Fair and could use your help.

But back to robots. One question I did ask was about debugging swarms. As expected, the chore is not easy and there is a lot of work to do in this area. The current crop of robots is programming in C, but Java is the target for future work. “Why”, you might ask? Academia at its worst? No. Program correctness. James stressed that iterative testing and making sure the code was as correct as possible makes a big difference.

I could ramble on about more robotic tricks, photos, and stories, but we need to hit more highlights on the other technologies and products that were at ESC.

USB One thing that we included on our videos for Electronic Design and Engineering TV were a few companies that are making more use of USB inside the box.

Small Form Factor SIG (SFF-SIG) announced their MiniBlade (Fig. 4) that is a 40-pin socket with interfaces like USB, PCI Express (PCIe), and SATA. It will likely be a USB storage socket, but it has the potential to handle much more since these are generic interfaces. SiliconSystems has its StorageBlade flash memory that fits into the locking Samtec socket.

Another force at the show was the StackableUSB group, started by Micro/sys. They use a different Samtec plug and socket that has half a dozen interfaces including USB, serial peripheral interface (SPI), and I2/sup>C. Micro/Sys was showing off a PC/104 size motherboard and quarter-sized peripheral boards. The USB peripheral boards also have mini-USB socket so you can use the boards with any USB host via a standard cable.

WinSystems has some peripheral boards as well for the Pico I/O standard (Fig. 5) from the SFF-SIG. The peripheral board plugs into the new Pico ITX board from VIA Technologies. I’ll be looking at this new standard more closely in the future, but it answers the biggest issue with the original Pico ITX board, expansion. The SUMIT connectors on the board provide a stackable collection of PCIe, USB, and a host of other interfaces including LPC.

AccesIO foregoes any new standard and sticks with the normal USB connector on a wide range of I/O boards from real relays to very fast analog boards. The boards are PC/104-size, so they can be easily mounted in a stack; in boxes designed for PC/104 boards; or anywhere you can put mounting holes. The latter is key since the peripheral board can be placed away from the host and near the device. This can impact everything from size to cooling, allowing a designer much more flexibility than a stack, rack, or other existing solutions. USB hub vendors are going to love these—including the new $350 Fast USB Digital Waveform Generator module.

Toradex is now delivering very small USB sensors like this three-axis device (Fig. 6). It has a range of these Oak USB Sensors that work nicely with any USB host, as well as the new Atom-based Woodpecker board they announced at the show or the Marvell PXA-based Colibri DIMM-style modules. These support Windows CE and Linux.

USB has significant limitations but it often exceeds the requirements for a wide range of applications. One thing to look out for in the far future (my guess is a year or two) will be this same type of remote architecture but using PCIe instead of USB. Wired PCIe is now used for cabling boxes, but lower cost cables and connectors inside a box will allow distribution of I/O but with faster connections. It could even be more effective than CAN or Ethernet within a box. Just a thought.

One discussion I will bring up in the future is one that I had with many of the vendors about generating standards for USB peripherals. The base USB standards are the starting point for all of these devices but once above things like a USB serial connection programmers must turn to custom protocols. A standard mechanism for interacting with devices like general-purpose I/Os (GPIOs), digital-to-analog converters (DACs), and analog-to-digital converters (ADCs) like ZigBee does with its profiles would make this type of support really take off.

Another idea I have been tossing around is the inclusion of a simple virtual machine/interpreter to run scripting language programs on these USB devices. Everyone of the devices has a microcontroller on them and rarely is 100% of the flash or memory used up. Adding a simple interpreter comes at little or no cost. It would allow generic applications to be downloaded to standard devices like a DAC, where it could perform functions such as averaging or logging. Any takers on an open source project?

Boards And Multimedia
Atoms were everywhere. Intel has done a great job of seeding the industry, and real boards were out in force at ESC, with the occasional cry of higher end multicore platforms. InHand’s FireFly (Fig. 7) has a 1.6-GHz Intel Atom Z530 processor with a US15W System Controller Hub. It has wireless options for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth plus expansion slots like microSD and ExpressCard.

As with most board vendors, Kontron had its range of products on display with quite a few new ones. On the CompactPCI side is the CP3210, a rugged 3U conduction cooled board with a 733MHz PowerPC G3 750FX processor. There were some ATX and Flex-ATX motherboards (Fig. 8) with new 45-nm Intel Core2 Quad processors. These have 7-year, long cycle support.

Adlink Technology Express-AT is a COM Express module that also holds an Intel Atom. It uses the Intel 945GSE Express chipset. The hi-res video supports SDTV and HDTV resolutions. SATA, PATA, Gigabit Ethernet and USB 2.0 round out the platform.

AMD gave me a glimpse at the Sempron 200U and 210U. These will likely give the Atom some stiff competition, and should be available soon.

VIA Technologies was also showing off their new 1.6-GHz Nano. It was matched to a CN896 digital media IGP chipset on a Mini-ITX motherboard with a 16x PCIe slot. The Nano is optimized for crypto chores that are likely to be prevalent in multimedia environments.

Amulet Technologies had a new chip for its smart LCD panels. The Graphical OS Chip makes creation of graphical user interfaces (GUIs) for color LCDs almost a trivial exercise. It supports a range of interfaces including serial and USB.

I had a chat with Embedded Systems Design. They are primarily a consulting and design firm, but they also had a neat box based on one of their projects. The StreamBlade line is a box with an LCD display and keypanel, a 32-bit microcontroller with Ethernet support and control over a batch of FPGAs and I/O modules. The latter can handle a pair of 28 high-speed channels. Why design a custom system for data capture or generation when you can just program a StreamBlade?

STMicroelectronics actually added a DSP library for its Corex-M3 STM32 microcontrollers (MCUs). The STM32 will not challenge high-end DSPs, but if the DSP chores are more moderate then these chips and this library might be all you need. The STM32 is ideal for many digital-signal-control applications. For example, the STM32F103 line will handle complex 256-point, 16-bit radix-4 FFT in only 362 µs.

Analog Devices was showing off its new Blackfin BF51x series. I’ll be taking a close look at this later. The 400-MHz processors are available with 116-Kbytes of RAM plus an optional 4-Mbits of SPI flash memory. Analog Devices also had a private presentation with a number of customers using a range of processors from Analog Devices. I’ll write that one up separately.

Texas Instruments also had a wide range of products on display including the new triple core TMS320C6474. It uses 1 GHz TMS320C64x+ cores but consumes a third less power than a comparable system and it costs less. All this is packed into a 23- by 23-mm BGA that draws under 25 W. It supports DDR2 memory.

Atmel ran a lot by me as well. Some of it included their new EVK1105 AVR32-based audio dev kit. It has an Ethernet connection, a QVGA display and QTouch capacitive touch inputs. There is a socket for an iPod but you need to get a license from Apple if you plan on integrating with an iPod. The kit can be used as a multimedia platform or support for other devices as well.

Atmel’s latest XMega incorporates Atmel’s 8-channel event system that allows interrupts to trigger operations like data capture without processor intervention as well as 4-channel DMA. It also has as a 500-nA real-time clock.

The ARM0-basedAtmel AT01SAM9M10 can cut BOM cost by 50% by eliminating 3-V level shifters when matching the chip with most 3-V LCD displays. Many multimedia microcontrollers have moved to a lower voltage base forcing the need for level shifters until matching voltage displays become available.

Microchip was showing off chips they announced earlier in the year but its highlight at the show was the new MPLAB ICD 3 (Fig. 9). This version runs USB 2.0 and requires only a USB connection. No more power bricks. It is significantly faster, adds more debugging capability for the MPLAB IDE. It will also handle all Microchip chips from its 8-bit PICs to the 32-bit PIC32. One is in the mail so a hands-on review is in order sometime in the future.

Looking to build solid software? Don’t like bugs? You are not the only one. If you are looking for some help with embedded design techniques then you might want to check out Netrino. They provide embedded training, consulting, and product development. One of the things that came out from my discussion with Michael Barr of Netrino was the use of static analysis tools to create zero defect software.

Not surprisingly, I talked with a number of static-analysis tool vendors at the show, including Grammatech and LDRA Software Technology. Grammatech’s CodeSonar received an update. CodeSonar does whole program interprocedural analysis of C/C++ code. LDRA’s offering now includes MISRA C and CERT C. Its new TBvision product extends static analysis to security vulnerabilities and fault detection.

Real Time Innovations moved its RTI Data Distribution System (DDS) into the DO-178B realm. DDS provides a distributed publish-subscribe environment that can span backplanes and networks.

The Mathworks updated its fixed-point support with Simulink Fixed Point 6. This works with the MathWorks Real-Time Workshop Embedded Coder that can generate bit-accurate production code from fixed-point models. The system handles different word sizes up to 128 bits. This allows it to support systems like Texas Instruments’ TMS320C6000 DSP that has a 40-bit accumulator.

Green Hills Software was showing off an enhanced version of its Platform for Secure Wireless Devices. This includes drivers for Atheros Communications 802.11A/B/G plus commercial-grade Devicescape security supplicants.

Microsoft had its usual spread with lots of partners. Likewise, Microsoft logos were strewn around the booths of partners. The latest version of Microsoft Windows Embedded Standard (formally Windows Embedded XP) has been out and in use for awhile. The latest announcements included Microsoft Windows Embedded CE 6 and the lightweight Microsoft .NET Micro Framework 3.0. The .NET Micro Framework is small and faster. It adds a long list of features including Wi-Fi integration, integration with Visual Studio 2008. It now runs on a wider range of platforms including Analog Devices’ Blackfin and other chips with less than 64-Kbytes of RAM.

I spoke with Allegro Software about their support of Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA). Those who have not heard of DLNA should check out my consumer electronics article coming up in our December 11th issue.

Allegro Software is one of the premier suppliers of DLNA network stacks and services that are built on UPNP. Its RomPlug Toolkits support the range of DLAN platforms from basic media servers to advanced media renders.

Looking for a new language to do secure, reliable programs in? Check out SPARK from Praxis High Integrity Systems. Okay, it’s not new, but it is a subset of Ada that is designed for making correct programs. The correctness is done in a provable fashion and the approach is highly successful. Praxis is partnering with AdaCore, an Ada vendor delivering GNAT Pro Ada development tools. Check out Praxis' and AdaCore’s site and more from me later about some of the projects done in SPARK and about SPARK in general. That’s going to be an article all by itself.

That’s it for now. The train will be rolling into Trenton soon so I need to wrap this up for publication. I’ll be touching on other things I saw at ESC in subsequent Lab Bench Online columns and in print.

Acces I/O Products



Allegro Software


Amulet Technologies

Analog Devices


Digital Living Network Association

Embedded Systems Design



Green Hills Software




LDRA Software Technology






Real Time Innovations


Small Form Factor SIG



Texas Instruments


VIA Technologies


Praxis High Integrity Systems

TAGS: Robotics
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