Miniature Module Integrates Cellular & GNSS into a SiP

Article By : Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio

U-blox has announced its ALEX-R5 module, which integrates low power wide area (LPWA) cellular communication and global navigation satellite system (GNSS) technology into a system-in-package...

U-blox has announced its ALEX-R5 module, which integrates low power wide area (LPWA) cellular communication and global navigation satellite system (GNSS) technology into a system-in-package. The two key elements are the company’s UBX-R5 LTE-M / NB-IoT chipset with secure cloud functionality and the u-blox M8 GNSS chip for effective location accuracy for healthcare applications.

In an interview with Samuele Falcomer, principal product manager, product center cellular, u-blox, we looked at the new ALEX-R5 module’s application opportunities. Falcomer pointed out the 14×14 mm module size, possible thanks to the SiP design that integrates the two communication technologies. It is half the size of the u-blox SARA-R5 module.

Falcomer commented that “the push toward full integration must meet some standard ingredients: consumption, positioning, and security. There is a lot to be said about security, especially with the advent of IoT. This is addressed in ALEX-R5 with a set of SaaS solutions. Most of the modules on the market are like our SARA modules, 26×16 mm – too large for wearable solutions. Chip-down integration means huge certification expenses and considerable integration effort, so this is not applicable at the industrial level. Through molding, you move towards full integration: an overlap of components that you can’t achieve with the metal case. SiP goes to intercept this portion of the market that requires high miniaturization. ALEX-R5, with support of LTE-M and NB-IoT version 2, offers a seamless transition to the next generation of cellular technology.”

53% area reduction (over SARA-R5)
53% area reduction (over SARA-R5)

Wearable devices
ALEX-R5 offers a cellular transmission power of 23 dBm to ensure receiving even in difficult locations.  The module provides reliable and concurrent positioning with u-blox M8 GNSS receiver and LTE signaling for ongoing, real-time tracking data. The low power consumption makes it ideal for power-sensitive and battery-dependent applications, such as animal trackers, asset trackers, and fitness wearables.

“We achieve this by leveraging the low-power modes of the UBX-R5 and UBX-M8 chipsets and the ability to balance power and performance using the Super-E mode of the GNSS part with power consumption less than 1 uA,” Falcomer said. He added, “LTE at 23dBm prevents possible coverage and power problems.”

GNSS users expect near-instantaneous position sharing speeds. This is often not possible with standard positioning because at least four satellites must be identified and their complete data received. In adverse signal conditions or harsh environments, transmitting and receiving data can take minutes, hours, or even fail altogether. Performance can be improved by integrating GNSS receiver data with information from mobile network cells to benefit numerous applications in the IoT industry.

The rugged SiP package design (53% area reduction over SARA-R5) finds application in harsh environments where moisture or vibration can be an issue. “ALEX-R5 is rated at moisture sensitivity level 3 (MSL 3) and has an industrial-grade temperature range -40 to 85 °C,” said Falcomer.

SiP technology combines multiple integrated circuits, discrete and passive components into a complete functional system on a single package that can be manipulated as a standard component during on-board assembly. There are currently four types of SiPs on the market in volume: multichip modules (MCMs), stacked-die, package-on-package (PoP), and 3D packages.

Tracking devices
Tracking devices

Secure Cloud functionality supports IoT-Security-as-a-Service and is based on a secure internal element that enables pre-shared key management designed explicitly for LPWA devices. “Each chip is a  Secure Element that enables a whole range of important packages. It’s essential to ensure security standards. EAL5+ is even more secure than today’s SIMs,” said Falcomer. He added, “We won a CES award for the type of security on this SARA-R5. That’s how the security of SARA-R5 (October 2020 in production) has been implemented on ALEX as well.”

Falcomer pointed out that u-blox is not replacing the way customers intend or implement security. The u-blox proposal is about simplifying the adoption of security in IoT applications, making it more efficient. “Each ALEX module is cryptographically bound with each chip, and then a production pair is created. From that production pair, we apply several things such as foundation security, we ensure firmware integrity, end-to-end security, and out-of-the-box zero-touch provisioning with the main IoT cloud platforms,” said Falcomer.

End-to-end security has become more critical with the advent of the IoT, which has many entry/exit points and includes many devices deployed in the field. With sensors connected virtually everywhere, network layers are numerous input points, especially for hackers with bad intentions.

To prevent personal data theft, hacking of a connected device, and other security hazards, solutions must authenticate the user and securely manage and validate personal data. An element to consider is mutual authentication between devices and servers to be sent securely and intact. Messages must be encrypted so that only those authorized to receive them can read them.

The form factor and integration of the two communications technologies offer a parallel data acquisition process, finding application in animal and asset tracking in activity monitoring. “In Fitness Wearables, it provides GNSS measurements to track performance while concurrently transmitting other sensor information,” said Falcomer.

ALEX-R510M8S is specifically designed to operate with low-power modes like PSM (power saving mode) or eDRX cycling. With low throughput and support for PSM and eDRX cycling, the NB-IoT or LTE-M are good choices for use cases where static devices that transmit little data are typically involved. Power-saving mode (PSM) is specified to meet Internet-of-things (IoT) and machine-to-machine (M2M) requirements. PSM allows terminals to enter a deep-sleep mode for long periods after alerting the base station. This new feature significantly reduces the amount of power associated with the frequent communication requests usually sent by the base station.

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