Most people have little concept of what the “Internet of Things” (IoT) is, and that’s assuming they’ve even heard the expression. Even industry insiders are struggling to grasp what it is going to take to realize the several tens of billions of devices, or “Things”, that could be connected to the Internet by the end of this decade. Already the number of connected PCs, tablets, mobiles, games consoles and televisions outnumbers the world population, but the potential for connected devices could be orders of magnitude greater.
For this to become a reality though, the semiconductor technology that has made possible all the present generation of Internet-connected products is going to have to deliver yet further advances. One area, where this is particularly key, is in terms of power consumption. This isn’t just to satisfy environmentalists who worry (maybe quite rightly) about the vast energy consumption of the ever-growing number of data centers needed to support the Internet and the demands of cloud computing. Rather it’s the more pragmatic acknowledgment that without ultra low power (ULP) technology many of the anticipated “Things” will not be possible.
Why is this? Well, while many IoT devices may have access to mains power or regularly recharged batteries, many more will not and will either need to operate for long periods (years) before their batteries can be replaced or may need to use energy harvesting technology to power them; for example, we can distinguish between a light bulb and the sensor that detects movement or ambient light level to turn it on or off. Indeed, sensors for climate, lighting control, security and all types of remote monitoring tasks are seen as a major category of IoT device. Plus, it’s not just the sensor itself that needs to be low power; any associated processing or communications circuits that need to be located with the sensor will also have to be low power, such as NXP’s ultra low power microcontrollers, radio chips (for ZigBee and JenNet-IP) as well as its sensors (for temperature, humidity, light, and pressure).
Another category of IoT device that is expected to be very significant in future is healthcare. Here we are talking of both external and implantable devices that can aid hearing and vision and monitor vital signs like ECG, blood pressure and the delivery of drugs. This is an area where NXP is already established with a range of ultra low power healthcare devices.
One thing is certain: it is only with ultra low power technology that we will see billions of ‘Things” talking to ‘Things”.