Next-gen RF MEMS Switch for a Smarter, Faster Internet of Things

By Karen Lightman, Executive Director
Originally appeared on GE Global Research, March 28, 2014

Big Data. Internet of Things. Quantified Self. Connected Home. Connected City. These buzzwords are pretty much everywhere (unless you live under a rock or up a tree), and many of us are excited about the possibilities of connecting to data in intelligent ways that improve our everyday quality of life.

Micro-electromechanical Systems (MEMS) and sensor networks give us access to a more connected and quantified world by making “big data from little data.” (ARM CTO Mike Muller explored the topic at a recent MEMS Industry Group conference held at the 2014 International CES). But what if those little and then big bits of data can’t get out? What if they are stuck on the ever-clogged and expanding Internet Highway? How will I be able to quantify myself and analyze my sleep, eating and exercise habits if the data just stays put on my wearable device? What good will come from all this data then?

The simple answer is that it will be NO GOOD unless the data is conveyed via a robust connection with strong signal quality. A strong “data backbone” ensures that the little data can be quickly and seamlessly combined with other little data, then scrubbed and polished through algorithms to create big data that helps make smart decisions — fast. Sometimes these decisions might be as simple as “get off your butt, Karen. You’ve only walked 2,000 steps today” or it might be as complicated as a sensing microsystems that senses, switches, monitors and makes real time decisions on board planes flying overhead to industrial or healthcare monitoring and diagnostics here on the ground warning system for a jet engine turbine that has struck a flock of birds.

The bottom line is that all the fancy MEMS- and sensor-enabled gadgets in the world won’t reach their potential of truly creating an Internet of Things unless the data itself gets to its destination quickly, safely and efficiently. That’s why I became super excited to hear of GE’s RF MEMS switch that promises to enable increased data transfer speeds, enhanced signal quality, and longer battery life.

The RF MEMS switches developed by the folks at the GE Global Research Center in Niskayuna, NY use a unique material set and proprietary metal MEMS process developed at GE Global Research. This is breakthrough science, to be quite honest; and I am can’t wait to see this technology realized in future mobile devices. LTE-Advanced (also called “true 4G”) is already common in several spots in Asia and is expected to become the benchmark for mobile communications worldwide. GE’s RF MEMS technology will create that backbone, to enable the building of big data from little data on this new level of mobile communications.

In 2012, I had the pleasure of visiting the research center in beautiful Niskayuna. (It was in July not in the winter, mind you.) I learned all about GE’s new class of devices (including the switch) and am excited to see what breakthroughs will be coming from GE in the future.  I also got to dress up in the bunny suit and take a tour of their amazing MEMS foundry. (Read more about my visit by reading my blog.)

It is gratifying to see now that technology making its way into the market, with its promise to span numerous applications — across consumer to commercial and industrial products. I personally can’t wait to have my mobile device with the GE RF MEMS switch, truly enabling a smart and fast Internet of Things.

MEMS – Enter with Care

Written by: Karen Lightman, Executive Director, MEMS Industry Group
First appeared on Solid State Technology, March 27, 2014

MEMS – enter with care. I think that will be my tagline for MEMS Industry Group’s third annual MEMS Executive Congress Europe 2014 recently held in Munich, Germany. The official theme of the conference was the “MEMS-Enabled Life,” and the keynotes and panelists did talk about how MEMS is currently and will continue to improve our quality of life. However, what struck me the most about this conference was how every panelist shared not only the “everything’s-coming-up-MEMS” perspective but also some real honest discussion about the remaining challenges of getting MEMS devices to market on-time, and at (or below) cost.

This was especially apparent on the consumer products panel – which makes sense.  Because nowhere else is the MEMS industry more competitive than in the consumer market. JC Eloy of Yole Développement characterized it best: “The MEMS consumer market is booming, but….” The “but” factor here is that it’s such a tough business that very few startups can enter the MEMS consumer market, the only exception being InvenSense. I’ve often said that MEMS is not for the faint at heart, but these days it really looks to be cutthroat in the consumer business as Bosch and ST duke it out for the #1 spot. My favorite quote from the Congress was a sign of that competitiveness – so coyly stated by Teemu Rämö of Nokia when he introduced himself on the panel: “Nokia, the phone you had before you switched to your iPhone or Samsung.” Yes, remember Nokia. Now the Lumia is best known for its (MEMS-enabled) camera, but alas, not for its mobile phone capabilities.

The perspective on the challenges and opportunities in this competitive field of MEMS was also well detailed by our morning keynote, Rudi De Winter, CEO of X-FAB Group, who spoke of the innovation and diversification of MEMS and how it compares to semiconductor and CMOS manufacturing. De Winter described the challenges this way: “In MEMS there are no elementary building blocks…the physical implementation is very different from CMOS and there is a huge potential for optimization (process, design architecture).” Clearly a leader like X-FAB that is expanding its MEMS capabilities sees the opportunity but is going in with open eyes and an appreciation of the challenges that lie ahead.

The automotive panel, ably moderated by Freescale’s Marc Osajda, also reflected on the challenges in the ever-changing world of automotive. The panelists gave a great overview of the changing landscape. As BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries are increasing their demand for cars, they are not necessarily increasing their demand for MEMS-/sensor-laden cars. In fact, Richard Dixon of IHS shared the statistic that only 8% of cars sold in BRIC countries have MEMS/sensors while the average American car has closer to 18. This market diversification is simultaneously creating both real opportunity andbig challenges. But as stated by Christoph Wagner of Analog Devices, “MEMS will always be an innovator in automotive.”

The MEMS in healthcare panelists also discussed the opportunities for MEMS – explaining that the biggest chance for a “killer app” in MEMS is in the health/wellness space. The panelists couldn’t help themselves by discussing the barriers to that killer-app-happy-place, with the biggest one being regulation (no surprise here). But they expressed overall optimism when describing a future where you “bring your own device” to maintain wellness and health, and I look forward to experiencing that world as I envision it — with fewer wait times at the doctor’s office. (A girl can dream, can’t she?)

My highlight of MEMS Congress Europe was definitely hearing the keynote from Klaus Meder, president of Automotive Electronics, Robert Bosch GmbH: “MEMS and our Connected World.” With his enviable-looking presentation slides (like seriously, who does his graphics? I want his/her contact info!), Meder painted an exciting world enabled by MEMS/sensors and truly smart Internet of Things and Services (IoTS). “Internet of things is about sensors everywhere, networks everywhere, analyze everything,” stated Meder. YES! I want that world because that world doesn’t intimidate me or frighten me with its regulations and privacy concerns. I can’t wait for that beautifully intelligent MEMS/sensors-everywhere world. Can you?

Trip Report: MEMS Industry Group at MD&M West 2014

by Monica Takacs, Director of Membership, MEMS Industry Group

February 2014, MEMS Industry Group (MIG) exhibited at the MD&M West conference and tradeshow in Anaheim, CA with MIG members AM Fitzgerald & Associates, IMT – Innovative Micro Technology and Silex Microsystems as our co-exhibitors. Our host for the microtechnology pavilion was IVAM Microtechnology Network, one of our 26 partner organizations, and it featured international companies involved in the manufacturing of MEMS, sensors and printed electronics for the medical device industry.

Medical device manufacturers have quickly noticed MEMS as a viable solution to include in their multi-functional next-generation products. With MEMS steadily making its way into more medical applications, MIG is creating opportunities for our members to connect with the medical device community. In addition to attending and creating content for medical-device shows, we are launching members-only programming such as the MEMS in Healthcare Working Group, launched in the fall of 2013.

At MD&M West, MIG hosted a Learning Labs conference session, “Advanced Application of Sensors in Medical Devices,” with MIG Governing Council Member Alissa M. Fitzgerald, Ph.D., founder and managing member, A.M. Fitzgerald & Associates, LLC as the chair. A panel of MIG members IMT – Innovative Micro Technology, Merit Sensor, Silex Microsystems and Small Tech Consulting also participated in the panel discussion, “Utilizing new sensor technologies for implantable devices.” 

12815955115_6038d32e2f_nThe panel discussed the MEMS ecosystem and advised medical-device companies on navigating the opportunities and challenges of MEMS product development. Counseling companies not to reinvent the wheel, panelists explained that they can leverage partner relationships to overcome the technical challenges of MEMS fabrication.

They also described the evolution of the MEMS industry over the last 10 years from a landscape of startup companies to Fortune 500 and even 100 companies now including MEMS in their product roadmaps. Michael Shillinger, founder of IMT remarked that the majority of IMT’s customer base is now made up of large companies rather than startups. Moderator Leslie Field, CEO of Small Tech Consulting, remarked how development cycles aren’t what they used to be, which has led to the ubiquity of MEMS.

Kevin Mach, senior account manager of Silex Microsystems cited the critical role of MEMS foundries in the massive adoption of MEMS over the last decade: “Companies planning to get into the medical/life science space need to reach out to MEMS foundries early and often. It’s important to understand what options are available in manufacturing and to leverage the technical expertise gained from years of MEMS processing. In our experience, customers that take the time to understand the capabilities and limitations of their partners tend to be successful long-term.”

Rick Russell, president of Merit Sensor, encouraged attendees to design MEMS for packaging, particularly with regard to implantables, which require lots of capital and are a challenge due to FDA regulations. Alissa Fitzgerald added that MEMS packaging for implantables is an opportunity for innovation and patents. Because MEMS is heading in the direction of commoditization, the value add is the packaging of the chip into the product, said Fitzgerald.

MIG members on the panel had their own takeaways:

“I was very impressed by the number of people who attended the panel, said Russell. “The overwhelming response showed me that innovators are eager to adopt more MEMS devices to help diagnose your physical state, whether it be your heart rate during a medical procedure or simply sharing your daily activity level on social media. The number of companies adopting MEMS for wearable devices (noninvasive) has exploded, but those that require FDA approval (invasive) are much slower to market but have a higher long-term reward.”

“I was excited to see so many people in the audience already aware of MEMS and thinking about how to use them in their products,” said Fitzgerald. “We need to have more interactions like this between medical device innovators and the MEMS industry. The more we can learn about each other’s needs and capabilities, the faster we’ll see exciting new medical products emerge.”

Listen to moderator Leslie Field discuss all of the key takeaways of the panel below. 

Elsewhere on the show floor, MIG members were scattered throughout. Interlink Electronics showcased their force sensing technology, COTO Technology presented their RedRock MEMS Switch, which was awarded 2013 Product of the Year (MEMS category), by Electronic Products magazine, and Merit Sensor demoed their BP Series Blood Pressure Medical Sensor.

See both the Merit and Coto Technology product demos below.

Guest Blog: Xtrinsic sensor fusion library for Kinetis MCUs

by Michael E Stanley 

First Appeared in The Embedded Beat on Feb 24, 2014

30615-IND-FRDM-Duo2_angle_LR.jpgIn my December post, New sensor expansion boards for Freescale Freedom development platform, I introduced you to the FRDM-FXS sensor shields for the platform.  From the “Downloads” tab on the FRDM-FXS-MULTI-B web page, you can now download demo executables for the FRDM-KL25Z and FRDM-K20D50M boards that are compatible with Xtrinsic Sensor Fusion Toolbox for Android. (You can read more about this app here: Free Android App Teaches Sensor Fusion Basics.)  The links for the two executable are labeled FRDM-K20D50M_MQXL (compiled for ARM® Cortex-M4) and FRDM-KL25Z-MQXL (compiled for ARM Cortex-M0+).  You will need to log into the Freescale Community and accept a click-through license/disclaimer to gain access to the files.

One of the things I like most about the Freescale Freedom development platform is its ease of use.  It can be programmed with a bootloader that allows you to plug the board into your PC via USB, and install software (such as these files) with a simple drag and drop.  If you haven’t done this before, let me recommend a couple of resources for you:

Last June, I posted a number of videos to the Freescale website which show you how to run the Sensor Fusion Toolbox.  Although we’ve added a number of features to the toolbox since then, the basic principles described in the videos still apply.  Using the combination of hardware (shown at left), embedded code from the links above, and the Sensor Fusion Toolbox, you can experiment with different combinations of MCUs, sensors and algorithms, in real time, on your own phone or tablet.

Now here is the really cool part, the embedded fusion library at the heart of this functionality is now available in via the “Xtrinsic Sensor Fusion Library for Kinetis MCUs – Evaluation Version and documentation” link, available from the same Downloads tab listed above.  The download package includes a datasheet describing Freescale’s Xtrinsic Sensor Fusion capabilities, a user’s guide that will show you how to get up and running, and a zip file containing a CodeWarrior project.  The evaluation version runs only on the KL25Z board. Everything in the project, with the exception of one .c file, is precompiled.  Filename user_tasks.c is reserved for your use, and allows you to insert code at 5 specific entry points in the project.  You have visibility to all fusion outputs, and can modify the Bluetooth output stream to suite your own needs.  This is the same project used to create the executables mentioned earlier.  The evaluation version is fully compatible with the Xtrinsic Sensor Fusion Toolbox.

The evaluation version of the kit is intended to give developers everything they need to evaluate the quality and scope of Freescale’s sensor fusion libraries.  Once a decision is made to incorporate the library into a product, you will want to upgrade to the “product development” version of the library.  This version, which will soon be available from the same download page, provides many more bells and whistles with regard to fusion options and underlying project structure.  Differences in the three versions of the library are summarized below:

 

Feature

Demo Version

Evaluation Version

Development Version

License

Free click-through

Free click-through

Contact Freescale for Pricing

CPU selection

MKL25Z128VLK4

MK20DX128VLH5

MKL25Z128VLK4

MKL25Z128VLK4

MK20DX128VLH5

others upon request

Board customizable

No – FRDM_KL25Z & FRDM_K20D50M only

No – FRDM_KL25Z only

Yes

Sensor sample rate

Fixed

Fixed

Programmable

Fusion rate

Fixed

Fixed

Programmable

Frame of Reference

Android

Android

Programmable

Algorithms Executing

accel only, accel + gyro, accel + mag, accel + mag + gyro

Programmable

Sleep mode enabled between samples/calculations

No

No

Programmable

RTOS

MQX-Lite

MQX-Lite

MQX-Lite

Code flexibility

NONE – Executable only

customer code limited to 5 specific entry points

only Kalman and MagCal libraries are precompiled.  Everything else is supplied in source form, and can be modified.

Access to Processor Expert™ configuration

No

No

Yes

Collateral Materials

 

datasheet

zip file containing the appropriate CodeWarrior project

user manual

 

The next table shows sensor fusion features versus sensor complement used for the application.  See the sensor fusion datasheet for additional restrictions/details.

Feature

Accel only

Accel + gyro

Accel + mag

Accel + mag + gyro

Filter Type

Butterworth

Indirect Kalman

Butterworth

Indirect Kalman

Roll / Pitch / Tilt in degrees

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yaw in degrees

No

No

Yes

Yes

Angular Rate in degrees/second

virtual 2 axis

Yes

virtual 3 axis

Yes

Compass heading (magnetic north) in degrees

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

quaternion and rotation vector

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

rotation matrix

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

linear acceleration separate from gravity

No

Yes

No

Yes

NED (North-East-Down Frame of Reference

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

ENU (Windows 8 variant) Frame of Reference

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

ENU (Android variant) Frame of Reference

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Magnetic calibration included

No

No

Yes

Yes

Gyro offset calibration included

N/A

Yes

N/A

Yes

FRDM-KL25Z_MQXL board support

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

FRDM-K20D50M_MQXL board support

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

I will be teaching two different classes dealing with the Xtrinsic Sensor Fusion Library for Kinetis™ MCUs at the upcoming Freescale Technology Forum in Dallas.  The first will be a one-hour “lunch and learn” session (FTF-SDS-F0176) on Wednesday, April 9.  A three-hour hands on session (FTF-CON-F0178) is planned for Thursday afternoon.  This session was previously targeted specifically at our eCompass software (and may still be shown as such on the FTF agenda), and is being repurposed so that we can provide additional, in depth, training on the fusion library.  I hope to see you there!

 

Michael Stanley is a systems engineer at Freescale.

 

Exploring the MEMS-Enabled Life: A Preview of MEMS Executive Congress Europe 2014

Written by: Karen Lightman, Executive Director, MEMS Industry Group
First appeared on Solid State Technology, February 10, 2014.

Munich, Germany is one of my favorite cities in the world. If you agree or if you’ve never been there, I have the perfect opportunity for you to join me:  MEMS Industry Group’s (MIG’s) MEMS Executive Congress Europe 2014 will be held at the beautiful Sofitel Hotel Bayerpost on March 10-11. The theme of our third European Congress is the “MEMS-enabled life,” and I don’t think there’s a more perfect city to exemplify an enhanced quality of life than Munich.

Congress attendees will get a rare inside look at the business of MEMS as they hear first-hand from (and interact with) keynote speakers, featured presenters and panelists. Plus we’ll have lots of time for networking, including an opening reception on March 10 and a fabulous dinner at the Augustiner Braustuben Biergarten on the night of March 11.

Our morning keynote speaker, Rudi De Winter, CEO of X-FAB Group, will share his thoughts on the commercial, technical, manufacturability, market and investment risks in developing MEMS business, detailing how to overcome them to reap rewards. Mr. De Winter will also provide examples of MEMS and 3D heterogeneous integration by sharing the investment story in two startups:  MicroGen Systems (energy harvesting) and X-Celeprint (mass micro-transfer printing technology). As a big fan of Rob Andosca and MicroGen, I am really looking forward to hearing Mr. De Winter’s perspective on energy harvesting and in particular, MicroGen.

Our afternoon keynote speaker, Klaus Meder, president of Automotive Electronics at Robert Bosch, will explore “MEMS in Our Connected World.” I am especially excited to hear Mr. Meder’s speech as he gave the keynote at our MEMS session at 2013 International CES, and he revealed some of Bosch’s plans to revolutionize the way we connect to our world. This is when the concept of the “Internet of Things (IoT) comes home, literally. With IoT-enabled home appliances, my Bosch dishwasher could talk to my clothes washer so they don’t take all my hot water before my teenager takes a shower. (God forbid she doesn’t have enough water!).  And I love the idea of an IoT-enabled car talking to other cars to warn them of icy roads ahead (which would really come in handy here in Pittsburgh where all our side streets are covered in two inches of ice). I look forward to that world, where my life will be enhanced in very simple ways, thanks to MEMS.

While many of us might be swept away by the amazing consumer-focused products that MEMS makes possible, there is a big world beyond consumer, in which industrial applications t will truly revolutionize we manage critical business functions. We have brought in a respected industry luminary, Dr. Jörk Habenstreit, managing director for Research & Development Technology Software, Testo, to share his perspectives on the role of MEMS and sensors in some of these industrial applications. From food processing, transport and storage to clean room integrity, building thermography, and gas leak detection, MEMS-based test and measurement instrumentation from companies like Testo are improving business operations in a variety of ways.

With the focus of the entire European Congress is on the business of MEMS, we’ll also include panel discussions to drill down into specific market areas, including consumer, health/wellness and automotive. We’ve worked extra hard this year to make sure we hear from a wide array of opinions and perspectives so you’ll see some folks from research sitting alongside industry veterans, giving us their thoughts on the future market potential for MEMS-enabling products. I think it’s important to get a diversity of opinions on panels and I am confident this year’s European Congress will not disappoint. You can check out the agenda for the full list of speakers and the descriptions of the panels.

MEMS Executive Congress Europe checks all the boxes: great content and speakers, networking time with MEMS industry execs and OEM users, and an unbeatable location in Munich. Hope you’ll join me there!

Guest Blog: New Sensor Expansion Boards for Freescale Freedom Development Platform

Originally posted by Michael E Stanley in The Embedded Beat on Dec 6, 2013

I am really excited because Freescale recently released a family of new sensor expansion boards designed to work with the FRDM-KL25Z and FRDM-K20D50M Freescale Freedom development platforms.  All three of the new expansion boards are based upon the same PCB design, and differ only in terms of how they are populated.  I’ve been using prototypes of these for months as a development platform for sensor fusion (more on that to come).  If I had to come up with a one word descriptor, it would be “SWEET!”

I refer to this design as our “kitchen sink” board, as it includes many of the sensors that Freescale introduced in 2013.  Because it pairs with two popular Freedom boards, it makes an ideal platform for product prototyping.  If low power and cost are your prime concerns, the KL25Z, built around a Kinetis KL25 MCU with ARM® Cortex®-M0+ processor, should be your base board of choice.  If you need more processing power, upgrade to the K20D50M, which is enabled with a K20 device built around an ARM Cortex-M4 processor.  Both Freedom development platforms support the popular Arduino R3 expansion board interface, which is also used for the new sensor expansion boards.

Prior to joining Freescale’s sensors team 4 years ago, I worked in the MCU side of the business.  I was really jazzed when my old division introduced the Freedom series of boards.  They are extremely flexible, easy to use and the cost cannot be beat.  Nice job!

The table below summarizes feature sets for each of the new sensor boards.  The two “MULTI” board options include redundant capability for rmeasuring acceleration and magnetic fields.  The intent is to provide multiple sensor options for you to experiment with.

Feature FRDM-FXS-MULTI-B FRDM-FXS-
MULTI
FRDM-FXS-
9AXIS
Expansion Board Photo 30615-IND-FRDM-FXS-MULTI-B_top_LR.jpg 30936-IND-FRDM2-FXS-MULTI_top_LR.jpg 30939-IND-FRDM-FXS-9AXIS-top_LR.jpg
Compatible Freedom Development Hardware (not included) FRDM-
KL25ZFRDM-KL20D50M
FRDM-
KL25ZFRDM-KL20D50M
FRDM-
KL25ZFRDM-KL20D50M
Arduino R3-compatible board
FXAS21000 Gyroscope
FXOS8700CQ Accelerometer / Magnetometer Combination Sensor
MMA8652FC Accelerometer
MPL3115A2 Altimeter/Barometer Sensor
FXLS8471 Accelerometer
MMA9553L Pedometer
MAG3110 Magnetometer
Bluetooth Module and Battery
Price USD (Dec. 2013) $125 $50 $30

In a prior posting (Free Android app teaches sensor fusion basics) I introduced the Xtrinsic Sensor Fusion Toolbox for Android, with the promise that it would communicate with future Freescale development boards.  The FRDM-FXS-MULTI-B IS that board.  Freescale will be posting downloadable binaries for the fusion app shortly.  You can expect to see an evaluation version of the Xtrinsic Sensor Fusion Library for Kinetis MCUs soon also.  I’ll be posting separately on that topic.

Because it includes a rechargeable Li-Ion battery (simply plug it into a USB port to charge) and 3rd party Bluetooth module (BR-LE4.0-D2A), your FRDM-FXS-MULTI-B application can be completely untethered.   The wireless module includes its own software stack for wireless encode/decode, which means that communications to/from the Freedom hardware could not be easier.  Simply read and write using a standard UART interface.

The FRDM-FXS-MULTI  has exactly the same sensor complement as the FRDM-FXS-MULTI-B, but omits the Bluetooth module and battery.  This has the benefit of lowing the per board cost by about 60%.  For those of you who really only need a basic 9-axis MARG (Magnetic-Angular Rate-Gravity) module, the FRDM-FXS-9AXIS board is just the ticket at only $30 USD.

Labelled.jpg

The photo above shows key components on the FRDM-FXS-MULTI-B board.  Did I mention the SD card slot for data logging?  Or the prototype area on the left of the board?  You might want to plan on using Processor Expert software to abstract base board dependencies out of your project.  That’s what we did for our fusion code, with the result that we’re able to easily target both Freedom boards with essentially the same application.

Just click the “BUY” button on the web page associated with each board to place your order.  Don’t forget to also order a main Freescale Freedom development platform if you don’t already have one.

 

References:

  1. Freescale Freedom Development Platform
  2. FRDM-KL25Z
  3. FRDM-K20D50M
  4. FRDM-FXS-9AXIS
  5. FRDM-FXS-MULTI
  6. FRDM-FXS-MULTI-B
  7. Processor Expert software
  8. Blue Radios Bluetooth module BR-LE4.0-D2A

Michael Stanley is a systems engineer at Freescale.

MEMS: An Enabler of the Next Internet Revolution

Micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) and sensor fusion will play a critical role in enabling a more intelligent and intuitive Internet of Things (IoT)—one that will revolutionize the consumer space forever. The MEMS and sensor technology is here today and now is the time to harness it for your products and position yourself for this exciting future. I encourage you to read on and learn about some great examples of MEMS enabling IoT.

-Karen Lightman, Executive Director, MEMS Industry Group


MEMS: An Enabler of the Next Internet Revolution

Written by: Howard Wisniowski, President of HW Marketing Group.

The next internet revolution is shaping up and MEMS is poised to play an important role. Commonly referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT) or Machine to Machine (M2M) communications, this revolution consists primarily of machines talking to one another, with computer-connected humans observing, analyzing and acting upon the resulting ‘big data’ explosion it produces. While the first internet/web revolution changed the world profoundly, the disruptive nature of MEMS, M2M and the Internet of Things has the potential to change it even more as the big data machine will no longer be dependent on human data entry. The internet traffic will be automatically generated by millions of ‘things’ from which we can retool large parts of the world for better efficiency, security and environmental responsibility.

The enabling qualities of MEMS sensors quickly come to mind since they are increasingly becoming cheap, plentiful and can communicate, either directly with the internet or with internet-connected devices. Almost anything to which you can attach a sensor — a football helmet, an automobile, a smartphone, a cow in a field, a container on a cargo vessel, the air-conditioning unit in your office, a lamppost in the street — can become a node in the Internet of Things. Be it on location, altitude, velocity, temperature, illumination, motion, power, humidity, blood sugar, air quality, soil moisture… you name it, MEMS-based sensors will play an important role in gathering and/or disseminating data from millions of devices.

Deeper into the signal chain, however, is another class of MEMS devices that is evolving and will have a profound impact. At the heart of all the “connected” devices will be a component that provides the timing that enables all communication to occur.

In the past, timing components have typically been manufactured from quartz crystals, a nearly century-old technology unsuitable for integration into small, low power connectivity ICs. In contrast, a new generation of MEMS timing devices are appearing and are offered by companies such as Sand 9Silicon Labs, IDT, and SiTime. Major advantages of MEMS timing devices include vibration immunity, shock resistance, power supply noise immunity, small package dimensions, and reliable operation at high sustained temperatures. Additionally, sourcing MEMS timing devices is significantly easier that quartz. Leadtimes are shorter, the ability to react to sudden upside is much faster, and the ability to leverage semiconductor batch manufacturing enables cost benefits as volumes scale.

For the IoT market, small size is a key factor. New timing devices are now available in ultra-small WLCSPs and can be co-packaged with Bluetooth Smart ICs. An example of this is Sand 9’s MEMS resonators. Rugged, simplified Bluetooth Smart SiPs with the smallest dimensions and lowest power requirements are one of the factors driving Bluetooth adoption and IoT growth by enabling applications such as new industrial designs for wearable devices and tags.  With an ever increasing number of Bluetooth devices able to connect wirelessly, both the ecosystem and each device in it will increase in value and usefulness.

Speaking of smaller size, zero operate power, and higher performance, another MEMS technology is emerging that will also impact product designs serving the IoT trends. MEMS switches are now being introduced that require no power to switch while robust enough to  handle 300mW of ‘carry power’ performing as a sensor, high carry current switch or both. Announced earlier this year, Coto Technology’s RedRock™ MEMS-based magnetic reed switch is the latest example and is currently the world’s smallest single-pole, single throw (SPST) switch at only 2-by-1 millimeter (with an even smaller one on the way). It is activated or closed by a magnetic field of less than 25 milliTeslas while being highly directional, making it virtually immune to stray magnetic fields. Applications that benefit include ultra-small hearing aids, implantable insulin pumps, capsule endoscopes in-a-pill, and even devices that track birds, land animals and sharks off the coast of Chatham Massachusetts, all products connected for data logging and programming.

There’s many exciting market possibilities for MEMS-based products in the emerging world of the Internet of Things as products become smaller, increase in capability and machine-to-machine communication grows in importance. I’ve only touched the surface and I’m sure there are many more examples in this continually evolving landscape as suppliers continue to roll out products with greater capabilities and enable applications that were not possible before.

Who is next?  Share your thoughts.