While the original Bluetooth technology (Bluetooth Classic) has been a milestone for both consumer and industrial connectivity since its introduction in 1994, its weakness has long been its high power consumption. This made 2010’s introduction of Bluetooth Low Energy with Bluetooth 4.0 shine all the brighter, as its energy efficiency—such as its sleep mode operation—was a breath of fresh air to users who had long seen their device batteries drained from Classic’s usage.
Now, the generations of Bluetooth have risen the ranks all the way up to 5.1, and the specification updates will only continue from there. The said energy efficiency of BLE is a chief reason for the continuous success of Bluetooth SIG: Low Energy has facilitated IoT solutions, such as Bluetooth Mesh; it has helped to make medtech a household option for patients (including BLE wearables that track users’ heart rates); and, as discussed in this Q&A, the disposable electronics market is now set to improve greatly from BLE, too. For one thing, the SmartBond TINY’s small-scale, low-power nature will facilitate the increased use of miniature batteries—another milestone for the medical field, but also for inventory management and other logistics operations, too.
These are just some of the many benefits of introducing a high-efficiency BLE SoC to the market: Adrie Van Meijeren, product marketing group manager at Dialog Semiconductor’s Low Power Connectivity Bluetooth Unit, told Electronics Point’s Sam Holland more about the several applications of the DA14531, its design implementations, as well as other Dialog research that is set to enhance Bluetooth further still.
Adrie Van Meijeren, product manager at Dialog Semiconductor’s Low Power Connectivity Team. Image courtesy of Dialog Semiconductor.
Sam Holland: Let’s start with a brief introduction of the DA14531 SmartBond TINY system-on-chip—for instance, the improvements that have been made since its predecessor, its hardware involved, and so on.
Adrie Van Meijeren: The improvements made since proceeding technology include our halving both the power and the size, as well as bringing a reduction in the overall system cost—from roughly just below the dollar to 50 cents in high volume.
The core voltage of the DA14531 SoC is 900 millivolts, and the product’s radio has been optimised to reduce power consumption and size. The sleep current and power modes have also been optimised.
SH: The DA14531 SmartBond TINY has achieved record-breaking efficiency. What do you consider to be the most integral design choices that have led to such low-power technology?
AVM: It’s worth noting here that there is not a single answer to this.
We’re running the chip at a lower operating voltage, namely the said 900 millivolts, but that’s just one part of it: as mentioned, we also redesigned the radio to reduce both power and size. Accordingly, the product’s power management is different to proceeding technology, and we can easily work from this 900-millivolt core voltage. In fact, we only need a step-up [aka boost] power converter, for instance, when running the technology from 1.5-volt batteries at startup.
Plus, even when we do need a step-up converter, we only need it to quickly read the one-time programmable [aka OTP] memory, start things up—and then we can just shut it down. This is also a power advantage.
On top of all this, the product’s memory intellectual property is also more optimised for the lowest-power performance, so again, our work has really addressed plenty of aspects in terms of running power, radio activity, as well as sleep modes.
SH: What devices and/or applications do you think the technology will benefit the most from?
AVM: The disposable applications are the ones we’re really focused on, and I think they’re what the device is really suited to, given its low-power efficiency: thanks to the DA14531’s current limiter, its disposable batteries have a really tiny capacity: it could be as small as 15 milliamps per hour. For scale here, that’s dramatically less than that of, say, a triple-A battery, which can have well over 800 milliamps per hour.
That said, these batteries do have high internal resistance, which means that it can be difficult to work with them. This challenge led us to do a lot of R&D to figure out how to work with such batteries; and while these efforts were at first focused on earlier devices, they’ve most recently led us to make the design choices, touched on earlier, in this particular product [the SmartBond TINY].
Dialog Semiconductor’s graphic impression of the DA14351 (nicknamed SmartBond TINY) system-on-chip. Image Credit: Dialog Semiconductor.
So as mentioned, there are now particular interests in disposable BLE-based applications, and these fall into two major categories: one concerns areas like team asset tracking, cold food supply chain management, and inventory management—basically, the logistics category. Then, secondly, there’s the medical area: consider pharmaceuticals and connected health, such as BLE insulin trackers, blood-pressure checking meters, and so on.
In addition to these benefits, there’s also the easy commissioning of equipment, which is another thing for which we’re already seeing some interest from certain appliance makers. Because while there’s plenty of equipment on the market that has very high potential, much of the technology still has really clumsy user interfaces—so it’s no surprise that appliance makers are showing interest in such easy commissioning. But having said that, if this were to potentially take off, it will depend on a change in the mindset of manufacturers: will they dare to ditch printing the user manual, which is usually needed to work on their products, and just go with an app-based user interface instead? We don’t know exactly, but easy equipment commissioning is part of an interesting market—and if it takes off, it could be big.
Alongside this, because we have brought a much lower cost point to the integration of BLE, particularly in microcontroller designs, there’s also the opportunity for manufacturers to add BLE to their products. Consider the usual suspects: toys, computer mouse and stylus products—plus of course, remote controls. So far we have seen some success in remote controls; although, as for the ones that are also voice-controlled, in some cases our technology didn’t support these. The reason for this is that customers request higher-performance codecs, like Opus’s codec technology, in some requests.
That said, I think that, when you consider the more simple remotes, with just a couple of buttons, I think our BLE solution can replace those that work with the industrial, scientific and medical band (aka ISM), or even infrared. In which case, users will then have the advantage of—not only having the physical remote—but the corresponding Bluetooth app at the same time. Neither one of the two has to exclude the other, after all.
SH: With some of the technology now introduced, please tell me a bit more about yourself, your background, and your involvement in the SmartBond TINY.
AVM: I’ve been working for Dialog since 2005—that was back when the Low Power Connectivity Bluetooth Unit, which I’m now based in, was not a part of Dialog—and I’ve worked for a long time in the sales organisation. I started at Dialog as the European sales manager and then later made the move over to the marketing side, and since about a year ago, I’ve been marketing group manager for the Dialog Semiconductor group.
And that leads me to my involvement in this current program: I’ve been the product owner for the DA14531 technology, and so I’ve been enjoying the ride all the way from product definition and ideation—and now, of course, bringing it to market. It has been a very, very interesting process. I’ve really enjoyed it.
SH: With the SmartBond TINY being new to the market, what are your hopes and expectations for the SmartBond TINY in the foreseeable future?
AVM: Our hopes are that, with the DA14531 SoC, together with the upcoming DA14531 module—planned for release in Q1, 2020—we reach out to a much broader customer base.
Planned for release in Q1, 2020: the DA14531 (nicknamed SmartBond Tiny) module for user-friendly Bluetooth operations. Image Credit: Dialog Semiconductor.
Plus, we hope to get into new markets like the said areas of disposables, asset tracking, pharmaceuticals, and so on; but also—particularly in terms of the module—we plan to actually reach every corner of the market: to be the go-to choice, for instance, when universities need to hand out, say, a product to carry out academic projects and programmes with. We like this idea that they actually pick our technology, because it’s easily available, it’s affordable, and very easy to work with.
Ultimately, we really want to increase our footprint in the market, and that’s definitely one of our hopes with this product.
SH: Let’s move on to cybersecurity. Could you introduce the product’s security features—for example, the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)—and the ways in which you expect them to improve Bluetooth?
AVM: On the Bluetooth link, we support the standard Bluetooth security, particularly an AES-128 security scheme. We have all of the security feature support on-board.
Alongside this, we also have a true random number generator, or TNG, which is actually based in the device’s software—so this is another feature where we have set a higher level of security than in proceeding technology.
SH: How do you think engineers, especially electronics and electrical engineers, will benefit from the DA14531 technology?
AVM: First of all, I think for some markets, the use of BLE has proved prohibitive in the past; and some of the reasons for this are based on high power consumption—which goes hand-in-hand with, for instance, battery usage, size, and cost. Take, for example, disposable products: if your batteries are not disposable (by chemistry), then your products can, likewise, never be disposable. Whereas, if you have disposable batteries, such as the ones the DA14351 accommodates, then you can have a nice solution to manufacture BLE devices, such as connected medical products.
I think engineers and other industry professionals will enjoy seeing this product open up new options in new application and market segments, and this basically comes down to, again, the system cost, power, and size.
Another engineering benefit, I think, also comes down to the single crystal oscillator you use: in the case of these latest SmartBond products, you don’t have a power penalty to pay due to the crystal used, and that will make the technology both more compact and lower in cost.
In fact, there’s probably just one other Bluetooth solution out there that can work with 1.5-volt batteries, and this is one of the reasons that we at Dialog have a unique position. Ultimately, if you want to work with disposable applications, then being able to easily work from 1.5-volt batteries—and/or 1.4-volt batteries, such as hearing aid batteries—is important. And I think these things do make a difference, and I believe they will help engineers to enjoy working with the product.
SH: In view of all of these breakthroughs that we’re seeing for Bluetooth Low Energy, do you think that Bluetooth Classic will eventually become obsolete; or, do you think Classic will still be used for certain applications indefinitely?
AVM: That’s a question I have to think about a fair bit [laughs]. Good question.
We in the Dialog Low Power Connectivity team are BLE people so, in a way, we would love Bluetooth Classic to disappear, but our wish is not necessarily going to become a reality, as this is all decided by the market. Bluetooth Classic will have a long tail in some businesses—I think it will differ from market to market. Take care car audio, for instance: while I believe Classic will have a very long tail in car audio, perhaps other applications are set to move over very quickly in favour of BLE. If you think of the more general Bluetooth audio—e.g. consumer applications with a need for synchronisation (like surround systems), for instance—BLE has some unique advantages over Bluetooth Classic.
Consider, for example, BLE’s new codec, namely the LC3 codec: this grants users better audio quality over the air, even when the users are dealing with the same bit rate as a Classic Bluetooth system. Plus, if you compare audio quality that’s identical between BLE and Bluetooth Classic, you actually get away with less airtime with the former—so again, there’s reduced power consumption. That is all thanks to the new BLE codec.
There’s also the fact that the synchronisation between left and right speakers, e.g. in headphones, is not easily resolved in Bluetooth Classic initially: you need all sorts of audio technology tricks to get that right; whereas, in Bluetooth Low Energy, this isn’t an issue in either connected systems or broadcasts. So, again, consider the synchronisation between left and right earbuds, headphones, speakers, and so on.: the synchronisation is sorted out and standardised with audio over BLE—and in fact, even in broadcast mode, you can stream to multiple audio channels and send each of those channels the quality they actually require.
All in all, there’s a combination of things to consider for this question. Maybe Bluetooth Classic will be around for quite some time—but either way, for now, there are new BLE features that will benefit many applications, especially audio.
SH: On a closing note, could you tell me a bit about any other projects, Bluetooth Low Energy-focused or otherwise, that Dialog Semiconductor has planned for the future?
AVM: I mentioned earlier the upcoming DA14531 module that we will soon be introducing to market, and together with this, we will also release a software package—which will allow engineers, who are really quite inexperienced in code writing, to actually create a product using our CodeLess AT—i.e. Attention—commands.
Ultimately, it’s essentially this kind of thinking that’s driving Dialog Semiconductor.
Many thanks indeed to Adrie Van Meijeren for discussing the exciting Bluetooth technology that Dialog Semiconductor has recently brought to the market.
Bluetooth Low Energy is a ground-breaking technology, and the DA14531—aka the SmartBond TINY—is a shining example of what BLE can bring to the industrial, medical, and consumer worlds. We look forward to hearing more from Dialog Semiconductor and its products, including of course its upcoming DA14531 module.