The big chip companies targeting the smart-home market have been like Wile E. Coyote chasing the roadrunner. Redpine Signals thinks it can catch its prey with its new IoT chip
All major chip vendors – namely, Qualcomm, Cypress or Texas Instruments – pursuing the elusive IoT market today are discovering that the smart-home segment is a roadrunner and they are Wile E. Coyote.
The challenges of a fragmented smart home IoT frontier are manifold.
First, the smart-home segment covers a vast diversity of connected devices, ranging from door bells, door locks and smoke detectors to smart speakers and smart refrigerators. Second, they offer too many connectivity options (WiFi, Bluetooth, BLE, ZigBee, Z-Wave and Thread). Third, smart-home devices often provide little interoperability on application layers (i.e. Apple HomeKit and Samsung SmartThings). Fourth, the security gap in IoT chips is a deep quandary. Above all, power drain continues to hobble smart-home devices. When its batteries die, the device is neither connected nor smart.
Into this breach, Redpine Signals is leaping this week, with a new IoT chip called RS9116N-DBT. Integrated with dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5, and 802.15.4. with Thread stack, the new IoT chip features an ARM Cortex M4 MCU with advanced security. Redpine claimed that this chip will not just attain parity with its rivals but will also leapfrog ahead of them.
The advantages of the new IoT chip, boasted Venkat Mattela, CEO of Redpine Signals include: a) simultaneous multi-protocol wireless connectivity, 2) high-level security, 3) the ability to run edge intelligence (Redpine’s home-grown AI engine added) and 4) whole-home coverage.
Always-on sensor with Wi-Fi
Most of all, Redpine’s RS9116N-DBT “consumes less than 90 uA in Wi-Fi connected state,” Mattela claimed. This is power consumption one-fifth to one-fifteenth that of rival chipsets currently in the market, according to tests conducted by Tolly Enterprises, commissioned by Redpine.
But why does Redpine insist on Wi-Fi integration in a smart-home IoT chip? In a conventional smart-home IoT setting, Wi-Fi links are often offered separately from ZigBee mesh devices.
Mattela strongly believes this is no longer the way to go.
“The only wireless technology that’s native IP supported is Wi-Fi,” he stressed. Wi-Fi must be there to offer “interoperable IP access” to every smart-home device. Wi-Fi links have been regarded as a drag on IoT chips due to Wi-Fi's higher power consumption and higher cost. Mattella claims Redpine's wireless technology is the industry's first always-on sensor with Wi-Fi at lower power than any other wireless technology, which he expects will overcome resistance to using Wi-Fi in these applications.
One-size-fits-all IoT chip?
Common wisdom in the IoT industry today is that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all IoT chip, especially for smart homes. The feature sets needed for wearable devices, security cameras or smart speaker are significantly different.
Mattela, however, disagrees. Given an opportunity, any system OEM prefers to work in a single software environment, he argued, rather than dedicating multiple software development teams to different IoT devices. Maintaining different teams for different devices is an expensive proposition for system OEMs, he explained.
Redpine, therefore, is promoting the advantages of one chip for all devices. It pointed out that the RS9116N-DBT “avoids the use of two wireless chipsets for devices such as video doorbell and router.”
AI functions on the edge
Redpine’s new IoT chip also features “edge intelligence” enabling a surveillance video camera to do face recognition, detect a break-in by sensing motion, or enabling a smart speaker to recognize a home-owner's voice – total strangers won't be able to switch off the lights.
The RS9116N-DBT provides a host of “power-efficient and hardware assisted Machine Learning functions” to enable the next generation of smart applications, while preserving low operational latency and low power consumption, noted the company.
Instead of opting for off-the-shelf AI-enabled DSP cores, which could be licensed from companies such as Tensilica, Mattela said Redpine has devised an AI engine and neural networks on its own.
RS9116N-DBT is a single chip integrated with all functions including an AI engine. A 5GHz RF transceiver is, however, offered in a separate die. The single chip BGA features two dies inside, said Mattela, one die offering everything and another with just 5GHz RF.
The RS9116N-DBT is fabricated by using a 40nmLP process technology at GlobalFoundries.
Asked about specifics inside the 8.8 x 8mm BGA package, Redpine explained that the RS9116N-DBT integrates “an ARM Cortex M4 MCU, advanced hardware security, and multiple wireless protocols at an industry-leading power consumption point.” The chip has protocol stacks for Wi-Fi, BT, BLE, and Thread, and includes automated mesh formation and reconfiguration facets intended to provide whole home coverage.
Support for 802.11ah, Wi-Fi HaLow
Although the Redpine press release never explicitly mentioned it, the RS9116N-DBT comes with “802.11ah support,” according to the company’s CEO.
IEEE802.11ah, also known as Wi-Fi HaLow, is a 900-MHz version of Wi-Fi targeting long-range links especially for the internet of things.
Morse Micro and Newracom are believed to be the only chip companies doing HaLow chips today. Asked about this, Redpine CEO Mattela said, “Those companies are doing it now. [But] we’ve done it last year in a production device.” Redpine did not, however, roll the device onto the market, “because of the limited traction with Tier Ones,” he explained.
Nonetheless, the RS9116N-DBT has “[HaLow] technology integrated inside this SoC,” Mattela claimed. It means, “We will be able to support 802.11ah, when the Tier Ones adapt it in 802.11ah in Access Points, Gateways and others.”
The hidden support for 802.11ah will make the RS9116N-DBT “future proof,” claimed Mattela.
The RS916N-DBT is in volume production now.