Going into the 2011 Embedded Systems Conference Silicon Valley I was looking forward in particular to seeing and hearing more about new MCUs and ecosystem developments.


The show did not disappoint.


If there was one product to capture “best in show” honors a good argument could be made on behalf of TI’s MSP430FR57xx, a 16-bit microcontroller said to be the industry's first low power ferroelectric random access memory (FRAM) MCU. TI has been working on FRAM technology for about a decade, but this is the first time that the memory has been integrated into a microcontroller. The new MCU is said to reduce active power by up to 50 percent when executing code from FRAM,  operating at 100 µA/MHz in active mode and 3 µA in real-time clock mode.


What’s more, the on-chip FRAM allows data retention in all power modes, supports more than 100 trillion write cycles, and allows developers to partition data and programming memory with changes in software.

For product designers, the new technology provides the ability to deploy and monitor sensors for years at a time. TI engineers foresee it being used on many of the country's 600,000 bridges, or on other types of remote structures where safety and security is critical.


Microchip Technology has expanded its 8-bit Enhanced Mid-range Core product portfolio with the new, PIC16F1516/7/8/9 and PIC16F1526/7 (PIC16F15XX). MCUs. These new, general-purpose MCUs feature Microchip’s eXtreme Low Power (XLP) technology—for sleep currents down to 20 nA, and active currents less than 50 micro Amperes/MHz, according to the company—which lowers overall power consumption and extends battery life.


This MCU family offers 5V operation, which is important for many home appliance and automotive applications. An on-chip, 10-bit Analog-to-Digital Converter (ADC) with up to 30 channels enables more mTouch capacitive touch-sensing keys and sliders in smaller packages. Up to two each of EUSART, I2C and SPI ports enable communication with on-board peripherals. The new MCUs are available in 28-, 40-/44- and 64-pin packages.


Renesas Electronics America announced new support for its RL78 microcontroller family including compiler support from IAR Systems, real-time operating systems (RTOS) from Micrium and CMX Systems, and Wi-Fi (802.11n) support from Redpine Signals. IAR Systems' Embedded Workbench provides an optimized C and C++ compiler for the RL78 MCU family and supports the E1 on-chip debugger and IECube in-circuit emulator tools, both from Renesas Electronics. Additionally, the Embedded Workbench comes bundled with C-SPY real-time debugger, and the instruction simulator.




Micrium's compact and scalable µC/OS-II and µC/OS-III kernels have been ported to the RL78 family of processors so power-sensitive and environmentally conscious applications can further benefit from Micrium's µC/OS-II's and µC/OS-III's ability to enter the RL78 MCUs' SNOOZE and HALT modes when idling.




Similarly CMX Systems has ported its CMX-RTX operating system to Renesas Electronics' RL78 MCU family and Renesas and Redpine Signals have jointly developed 802.11a/b/g/n wireless-connectivity solutions to add low-power, single-stream 802.11n Wi-Fi capability to embedded systems that use Renesas Electronics' RL78 MCUs.




Contest Winners, Too


At ESC STMicroelectronics and EE Times  announced the winning design of the STM32 Design Challenge. Community members rated and voted from an original pool of nearly 200 designs submitted in the competition. Winners were chosen from ten finalists with the most imaginative and innovative solutions using the STM32 Discovery Kit, which was given away free to registered contestants.


Taking the title of Grand Prize Winner was Nghia Tran with Navicane, a talking navigation cane intended for use by visually impaired individuals. The goal of the design was to provide navigation information via audible messages and haptic feedback, helping users localize where they are and where they are headed, while improving overall mobility and decreasing dependency upon other resources. Included in this design were a magnetometer, accelerometer, proximity sensor, GPS, light and temperature sensors, audio codec and more. Mr. Tran was awarded $3,500 in addition to a free conference pass to attend ESC.


Honorable Mentions include the Delta Robot Clock by Justin Smith, a standard digital display on the end actuator of a delta robot; the eDiaper by Lakshmi Balasubramanian, an intelligent and hygienic moisture detection unit that alerts caregivers when to change a diaper; and a House Wide Audio System by David Erickson that included 8 inputs and up to 8 channels. Each Honorable Mention recipient received $1,000.


Freescale Semiconductor took the occasion of ESC to announce its “Make It Challenge”. Engineers enter the contest by enrolling in a hands-on workshop, where they receive a free biped robot replete with Freescale sensors and they are tasked with creating a unique mechatronics application. There is a $12,000 contest purse.


The Freescale Robot (FreeBot) is a 4-degree-of-freedom biped walking robot controlled by a Tower mechatronics board housing a 32-bit ColdFire microcontroller, 64k of RAM and 512k of flash. Four pulse-width-modulated RC servos work the leg mechanics for the FreeBot, with accelerometer, touch and other Freescale Xtrinsic sensors available via plug-in daughterboards.

The Make It Challenge live competition will take place at the Freescale Technology Forum, slated for June 20-23 in San Antonio.


Wozniak Assails U.S. Education


In a fireside chat format Q and A session with Brian Fuller of EE Times, Steve Wozniak, one of the original co-founders of Apple delivered the keynote at the Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) and was highly critical of the American education system, particularly math, science and engineering education, suggesting at one point that that the American public schools had outgrown their usefulness.

Wozniak, currently chief scientist at Fusion-io, described American education as stagnant, testing-obsessed and destructive of creativity. He said children in American schools, crowded into large classes, where they are pressured to complete and pass statewide and national standardized tests. “They’re not allowed different ways to think” he said adding that they become discouraged. Wozniak said his own children had attended public schools, but conceded, “I actually think home-schooling is very, very good as an alternative” and suggested that middle-class parents send their children to private schools.


Wozniak noted that over an eight year period during his career he spent some eight years “secretly” teaching at the middle and high schools levels