Wireless technology Choices, does, matter

Abhed Misra, System Applications Lead, LPRF, Texas Instruments


Today is the era of integration, whether it is on the feature and functionality side or the design and size wise. With a steep demand in wireless connectivity solutions it is extremely important and critical to have integrated solutions. That is a single chip taking care of multiple functionalities. Wireless microcontrollers are the key to simplified and compact connected products. Some call them as wireless System on Chip too, with the entire system of radio and host in a single chip.

A lot of effort and innovation has been put by the chip designers and application engineers to achieve the combination of best of both, i.e. radio and MCU. Today the wireless microcontrollers offer the ultra-low power consumption in active mode coupled with multiple low power modes enabling the most optimal power consumption budgeting. They are ahead of most of the MCU’s on processing MIPS and core mark. And on top are loaded with tons of general purpose peripherals like serial communication ports, timers, comparators, etc.

As we all know IOT is a big buzz word right now, but more importantly what all is part of this buzz. The popular Low Power RF technologies which all are talking about are

  • Bluetooth Smart (BLE) with BT 4.2 support
  • 6LowPAN
  • Open Thread
  • Sigfox
  • ZigBee 3.0

Each of these LPRF technologies has their own popular application areas too. Like BLE has always been very popular and most preferred one for sensor networks or battery powered wireless products. Now with BT 4.2 in line to bee released later this year, all the designers and developers are so much excited and are eagerly waiting to lay hands on Mesh network support on BLE. BT 4.2 will definitely open up the area of application for BLE, beyond home automation for sure. The other features to look for are the extended packet length and enhanced Security Manager.

Open thread is a very recent wireless communication stack offering made public with by Google in open source community. It is as of now supporting the 2.4GHz but should soon have sub GHz PHY support too. But the best part is the driving force behind it, you are right…google. There cannot be any doubt on the feasibility, stability and scalability of this solution. However, it will take its own time to mature from read to use application examples and test cases.

Sigfox is one other standard which is really covering the ground pretty fast. It is a very narrow band sub GHz communication standard catering to almost all the data exchange applications wirelessly. Their business model outlines the service catering via telecom providers in any nation. The subscriber has to pay for the services of some pre-defined number of messages per day. These messages will immaterial of location will be accessible through cloud service again extended and catered by Sigfox people. The solution model appears to be really good as it proposes to reuse the existing infrastructure of telecom towers. And as it is a narrow band communication, most of the interference sources get filtered out, giving you reliable long range communication.

Now the other very promising solution for WPAN networks is contiki – 6LowPAN solution. Contiki is an open source operating system that runs on tiny low-power microcontrollers and makes it possible to develop applications that make efficient use of the hardware while providing standardized low-power wireless communication for a range of hardware platforms.
Contiki is used in numerous commercial and non-commercial systems, such as city sound monitoring, street lights, networked electrical power meters, industrial monitoring, radiation monitoring, construction site monitoring, alarm systems, remote house monitoring, and so on.

The other side of all these technologies is how easily to use they are. What all collaterals from software and hardware perspective are available? What kind of support does design engineers have across world to build their own design and products on the silicon solutions from semiconductor companies?

Texas Instruments has come up with their new Ultra Low Power performance packed, System On Chip(SOC) families named CC26xx/CC13xx. And the cherry on the cake is that you can use the same hardware for multiple protocols like BLE, Zigbee, 6LowPAN, IEEE802.15.4 MAC and proprietary too. Yes it is reality, the CC26xx and Cc13xx family of devices give you freedom from multiple hardware, their certifications and testing and all the hassles involved in the solution development.

In today’s age, where renewable energy as a source and extreme efficiency in performance is essential, CC26xx and CC13xx family of devices deem fit. With a total link budget of 102dbm in CC26xx and 124dbm in CC13xx you can achieve a very long range of communication.

The other aspect which usually is hidden by solution providers is the switching time between different power modes. For many applications wake up time and going back to sleep time is as much important as the current consumption in active and low power modes. CC26xx and CC13xx family of devices take less than 20 microseconds from IDLE to Active mode and almost 1msec from Shut down to Active mode.

Any Low Power RF design takes a lot of expertise, effort, time and validation. And if the entire design effort can be just minimized to once than it would be dream come true. Well CC26xx and CC13xx just made it possible. The CC2650 part support multiprotocol in single chip, whether it’s is BLE, Zigbee, or 6LowPAN , all can be done in a single chip on one hardware.

And to a very pleasant surprise, the CC26xx device family offers drop in replacement in certain packages. That means if you have prepared a hardware on CC2640 device for BLE application and at some point of time you want to use it for Zigbee or 6LowPAN application then all you need to do is to replace CC2640 with CC2630 for Zigbee and CC2650 for 6LowPAN, keeping rest of the hardware exactly same.

Well talking about the hardware flexibility it is very important to discuss and understand how CC26xx and CC13xx family of devices reduce the BOM cost in differential and Singe mode of operation both. In figure-3 it is shown that with different packages different topologies can be achieved making your design extremely compact and cost effective.

Talking more about collaterals, the previous generation devices of LPRF from Texas Instruments had royalty free stacks for BLE, Zigbee and 6LowPAN (contiki) and so do the CC26xx and CC13xx. Whether it’s an application of BLE, Zigbee or IP based Mesh, it’s all possible with the new CC26xx and CC13xx devices. These software stack offerings are very religiously maintained, certified and updated by the R&D teams in Texas Instruments to always offer the latest and the most updated reliable solutions to its customers. Texas Instrument s also ensures the similar support in open source offerings like contiki based 6LowPAN stack, which is an IP based networking protocol.

The other angle to look on all these features and collaterals is the amount of innovation they allow an application developer to do, whether it is on the power budgeting or design size or extremely efficient performance in ultra-low cost. It will not be wrong in saying that these parts have raised the benchmark to very high level making not only things possible for application developers but also giving competition a reason to start thinking new and differently.

Apart from LPRF the other wireless communication standard is wi-fi. The advantages of using wi-fi connectivity are endless but it has some cons too. With standard interoperable connectivity and link, high data rates, seamless connectivity, wi-fi demands more power to operate and hence has been limited to mains powered applications only.

But with companies like Texas Instruments which have innovation as first priority in designing new products, things have changed. With CC3200 product from TI, which is a single chip solution for wi-fi connectivity, designing a wi-fi enabled product has become much easier than ever. And especially with capability to become access point and support 4 stations the scalability of applications is tremendous. Unlike commoditized wi-fi solution in market CC3200 offers much more enhanced security options and with roadmap part of hug onboard resources it becomes a default choice for people who can weigh feature and cost together.

It is very encouraging to see that in India central Government initiatives have been so much instrumental in defining the application areas for converting the cities into smart cities and energy meters in to smart energy meters.

Starting from the smart street light control and going to domestic solar power generation capability and then to Smart Energy Meters, all the steps and application areas are very constructively adding together to the cause.

Smart Meters have been deployed in India from a long time. But the volumes are distributed. With some utilities taking the lead in mass installation of smart meters other utilities decided to wait and observe, which seems ok from the precaution perspective. However, the times have changed. With all the past experience put together from various power utilities, meter manufactures and semiconductor partners like Texas Instruments, a new smart meter standard specifications have been released from BIS and power ministry, which outlines and defines the different architectures, communication protocols and other additional features, which have to be part of smart meter.

It is understood and accepted by all the stake holders in the power sector that with technologies like IP connectivity, load control, theft/tamper alarm and pre-payment, any further delay in using them is only going to cost more and more money. Leveraging the smartness of smart meters for various benefits is trending now.

Texas Instruments being the leader in Electronic Energy Meters and Smart Meters from more than a decade has come up with a fully compliant Smart Meter as per the latest BIS standard(IS16444 and IS15959) for Smart Meters. This solution is based on MSP430 series(MSP430F42x/MSP430F6xxx/MSP432) of metering microcontrollers and Sub GHz LPRF CC1310 wireless SOC families. It as been designed keeping in mind the balance among existing requirements and near future needs to form energy metering and wireless communication perspective.

Talking about possibilities and wild imagination is a very easy but selfish job. Making dreams a reality is what innovation and intelligence leads to. Companies like Texas Instruments with CC26xx and CC13xx and CC3200 device families have a lot to offer to all designers and developers like you and I, now it all depends on the choices we make.