Revival of an Old Technology
When doing your undergrad work in electrical engineering in college, you focus on what’s mainstream. If you’re studying semiconductors, that would mean silicon and CMOS. But you typically get exposed to exotic sideline things as well, just so that you know they’re there. And yes, occasionally they are on the final. Just to see if you were paying attention.
For me, one of those was silicon-on-sapphire (SOS). You’d see reference to it here and there, and it had great promise for… something fast. I didn’t pay much attention (I probably got that problem wrong on the final), and I never had need to pay closer attention once I got into the industry to do real work. At that time, the mainstream was bipolar, with CMOS coming on strong. ECL had some traction and was struggling to remain relevant. SOS figured nowhere in any of the things I was dealing with.
Microsemi Goes Mainstream
Microsemi’s FPGAs - going all the way back to the Actel days - had some interesting and compelling features and advantages. Because their logic fabric was created in flash, they could do certain things that “normal” SRAM-based FPGAs could not. They had very low power consumption, with almost no leakage. They were non-volatile, so you weren’t required to build extra configuration circuitry into your design. They were more immune than others to radiation effects such as single-event-upsets. And, they were comparatively secure - since one could eliminate the vulnerability of bitstream configuration from the final design.
“Wow!” (We would always think). “Those are some great features! But...”
That “but” usually revolved around the fact that Microsemi/Actel’s devices were small. You could take advantage of all those cool capabilities only if your logic needs were extremely modest. If you needed lots of LUTs, you were out of luck.
Ayla Networks Launches Kit
A few years ago I was meeting with a small wireless interconnect company called ZeroG Wireless, and the discussion included a vision of machines and devices and appliances and people interacting via this huge, messy, chaotic structure we refer to as the internet. And all of the vagaries and un-thought-through possibilities and the promise of things as-yet unimagined were neatly wrapped up in a succinct little phrase: the Internet of Things.
I loved how descriptive the term was; I hadn’t heard it before then, and it was a long time before I really heard it again, so I frankly thought they had come up with it. Well, I no longer think that, and, having just returned from the Sensors Expo, I can safely say that the Internet of Things was at the top of the agenda (above sensor fusion). It’s frickin’ everywhere.
Embedded Design Makes The World Go Round
In this week’s Fish Fry - we’re talking tools, we’re talking airplanes, and we’re talking watches. First, I’m chatting with Jim McElroy (Vice President of Marketing - LDRA) about where LDRA fits in the embedded tool landscape, what their compliance management system is all about, and how this compliance management system may help you get your next Mil/Aero design off the ground. Also this week, I’m checking out how Aldec’s new Spec-TRACER tool suite can help you navigate the twists and turns of your next DO-254 design and why you should check out a new Kickstarter campaign that is attempting to launch a brand new smart watch called The Agent.
Not As Easy As You Think
It’s simply getting from here to there. How hard can that be?
In fact, if it’s indoors, then things aren’t that far away, so that should be even easier, right?
Wrong. Indoor navigation is a bugaboo that’s got all kinds of folks scrambling to figure out how to get you to where you need to be.
As we’ve seen before, navigation outside uses a mix of technologies, but satellite systems figure prominently in the solution. Other technologies simply fill the gaps when the satellite signal is weak or blanks out for short periods of time. During such blackouts, IMUs and map-matching can do a reasonable job of keeping you going, and when the signal comes back again, we can zero out any accumulated errors and we’re back on track.
Fish Fry is treading on scary ground this week. Guard your children, hold your RTL close and your soldering gun even closer. We're talking ASIC design costs. I know many of you are cowering in fear at the slight mention of custom chip NRE costs, but my guest is Reid Wender (Triad Semiconductor) and we're chatting about how you can relinquish your mixed-signal ASIC design cost fears once and for all. Think of it as an NRE exorcism, sorta.
Technology is Giving Us Images in 3D and 4D
It’s been made into a big deal, and you can thank Avatar. Once a goofy movie gimmick that required glasses you wouldn’t get caught wearing anywhere else, 3D suddenly became cool. And, for a while, the best way to turn anything ordinary into something cool was clear: make it 3D.
Well, we’ve gotten a bit older and wiser (OK, older, anyway) and we’ve had time to catch our breaths and internalize the results of endless movies in 3D, TVs in 3D, printers in 3D. (OK, that’s more than a gimmick…) But it’s easier now to take a good, long, nuanced look at 3D and its potential for things other than box office smashing.
Contests, Warp Drives, and Self Destructing Electronics
Fish Fry. The Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Fish Fry. Boldly going where no electrical engineering podcast has gone before. This week we’re voyaging to the land of vanishing electronics and design challenges at warp speed. My guest is Adrian Fernandez (Texas Instruments) and we’re chatting about the MCU BoosterPack Design Challenge, how you can enter, what you need to do to win, and what groovy prizes they are giving away. Also this week, I check out DARPA’s Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) Program, how this agency plans to make disappearing electronics, and how Hollywood’s version of warp speed is all wrong.
It is now nine years since Opportunity bounced onto the surface of Mars, with a projected mission life of 90 Mars days. (A Mars day, or Sol in NASA jargon, is about 40 minutes longer than an Earth day.) Already on Mars was Spirit, Opportunity’s twin sister. (The Mars Exploration Rovers - MER - team seems to refer to their Rovers as “she” rather as sailors do their ships.)
It may be incorrect to call January 24th “Opportunity’s Birthday.” I regard it as such, as this was the day that its computer switched from controlling the descent and landing activities to controlling the exploration activities, but the story really started a lot earlier.
Alta Devices Changes the Rules
Batteries are the bane of portable device design.
Just about every portable or mobile device or system that does anything interesting - that is, anything that would require a “real” chip like a processor or FPGA, or anything that does meaningful real-world interaction like drive a display or spin a motor - needs a significant amount of power. When you can’t plug into the wall or the grid, your options are pretty narrow. The essence of your design becomes a tradeoff between the capability and longevity of your device and battery size, weight, and cost.
We’ve all briefly considered solar, of course. The romantic idea of a perpetually powered system gleaning what it needs from nothing more than the ambient light is a powerful aphrodisiac. We want to go on a date with solar. We buy flowers. We show up at solar’s door in our spiffiest engineering outfit.