Ultra Low Power MCUs – Key Trends and Applications

The recent emergence of wearable and other ultra low power applications such as remote IoT endpoints has often lead the power consumption replacing processing power as the key selection criterion in many embedded applications and drives the growth of Ultra Low Power Microcontrollers.

Microcontrollers is a single integrated circuit that consists of processors code, programmable input/ output peripheral and memory. Microcontroller are designed for different application for personal computers and other general purpose applications consisting of different discrete chips. Microcontrollers are also used in mechanically controlled devices and products such as office machines, remote controls, appliances, implantable medical devices, automobile engine control systems, toys, power tools, and other embedded systems. Moreover, the ultra-low power microcontrollers extends battery life of personal health devices such as portable, wearable, and implanted medical electronics are also forecasting the growth of global ultra-low power microcontrollers market.

Ultra Low Power MCUs

Over the last decade, the usage of the ultra-low power microcontrollers technology has grown significantly in different application. Ultra-low power microcontrollers facilitate a proper balance between cost-effectiveness, security, power and performance in the energy-efficient applications of embedded systems. The integration of ultra-low power microcontroller units is considered ideal for applications that demand a long battery life, huge coding space and cryptographic algorithms.

Ultra-low-power microcontrollers allow components and devices to operate and process the data by consuming extremely low power. These microcontrollers extend the battery life and operational lifetime of devices. These ultra-low-power microcontrollers are the best fit for sensor nodes in IoT, connected devices, consumer devices, wearables, and other low power electronics.

Demand Drivers

The demand for low-power consumption devices is increasing at a significant rate across the world. This has led to the requirement for the improved and efficient operation of electronic devices. Ultra-low-power microcontrollers are largely used in consumer electronics such as smartphones, smart TVs, wearables, wireless speakers, gaming consoles, and earphones and headphones to reduce the power consumption, as well as ensure higher performance and more excellent functionalities of these devices. The use of ultra-low-power microcontrollers in consumer electronics is also supplemented by the increasing use of these devices for connected networks and IoT.

Market Growth

Among all packaging types, 32-bit ultra-low-power microcontrollers holds the largest size of the ultra-low-power microcontroller market. The growth of these microcontrollers can be attributed to its feature of offering a balance between power consumption and high performance. This helps to meet the needs of power-constrained or low-power applications seeking battery-savvy functionality for the Internet of Things (IoT) and connected devices.

Among all end-user applications, the ultra-low-power microcontroller market for automotive is expected to grow at the highest CAGR. In automobiles, analog signals measure speed, pressure, and temperature levels through various body sensors. With the increase in body electronics and telematics in vehicles, these parameters are constantly measured to send required notifications for IoT network. This forms a base for the growing adoption of integrated analog peripheral devices for automotive applications. Ultra-low-power MCUs in the automotive sector are used in applications such as interior cabin motors, capacitive touch screens, and infotainment systems. The use of ultra-low-power MCUs in automotive applications also improves fuel efficiency and battery life.

Several key players in the ultra-low-power microcontroller market are already tapping these opportunities by increasing the R&D budget to focus on providing better performance. The growing traction of connected devices and equipment has also instigated many low-power device manufacturers to develop multi-technology integrated solutions for customers.

Here we took opinions from some Microcontroller key players to know more about new trends and key markets drivers for ultra low power microcontrollers.

Key Trends

Vinay Thapliyal ,Technical Marketing Manager- INDIA, MCU, STMicroelectronics

Ultra-low power MCUs are very important for battery-powered applications, especially in IoT applications where remote maintenance can be an issue. With the increasing number of sensor nodes connected to a cloud infrastructure and often powered by batteries, this trend will likely keep growing.

Another market driver supporting this trend are the advancements in low-power MEMS sensors. Sensors are now being adopted in different real-world applications in order to collect motion and environmental data such as temperature, humidity, pressure, speed, and acceleration which are measured and converted to digital signals.

Mark Beecham, MCU and Sensor Product Manager, Silicon Labs

We are seeing increasing market demand for low-power Internet of Things (IoT) nodes such as wireless sensors, connected medical devices and industrial IoT end nodes. Data is king, whether it means offering a better product in the future or saving energy through applications like smart lighting. Increased data gathering capabilities require the addition of intelligence typically in the form of an MCU or wireless MCU in the end node device. To drive increased IoT deployment and usage, connected device size and cost must be reduced, which calls for smaller, cheaper batteries and thus more energy efficient low-power MCUs. The emergence of low-power wireless technologies such as Bluetooth Low Energy direction finding and Bluetooth mesh are opening new IoT use cases such as asset tracking in retail and industrial automation environments. Asset tags are typically battery-powered devices that are very cost sensitive and thus need the smallest battery and most cost-effective low-power MCUs.

A key barrier to consumer adoption of IoT technology is the frequent need to change or charge batteries for IoT connected devices. As more battery-powered nodes are added to smart homes, the more battery changes are required to keep all these devices working and connected. Device makers are driving low-power MCU requirements to increase battery life and minimize the frequency of battery replacement by consumers or professional IoT system installers. Longer battery life enables IoT device makers to provide better products that delight customers, driving widespread adoption of IoT technology.

The market demand for 32-bit microcontrollers (including wireless MCUs) based on ARM Cortex-M processors continues to grow. We are also seeing increasing demand for energy-efficient wireless MCUs or wireless SoCs with integrated hardware and software security capabilities. Demand for 8-bit MCUs remains constant due to their excellent fit in cost-sensitive applications that do not require higher computational performance.

Both 32-bit and 8-bit MCUs have a place in IoT applications. IoT connected devices with a higher level of sophistication or devices running Bluetooth Low Energy, Zigbee, Thread, Z-Wave, Wi-Fi and proprietary wireless protocols very often need a higher-performance 32-bit device such as Silicon Labs’ EFM32 MCUs and EFR32 wireless SoCs. These low-power 32-bit MCUs and SoCs are necessary for performance-intensive IoT applications, and they also have key benefits over 8-bit MCUs by supporting signal processing and offering much larger memory options to enable over the air (OTA) updates.

Smaller, more cost-effective 8-bit MCUs are an excellent choice for simpler IoT devices or as peripheral processors in more sophisticated systems. Silicon Labs’ 8-bit MCUs provide a unique combination of high functionality and low cost that makes them very compelling for IoT devices that are very cost sensitive. Target applications also include simple wireless devices that often run proprietary wireless protocols.

Toru Moriya, Vice President of Emerging Market Business Division, Renesas Electronics Corporation

Battery-operated IoT devices mentioned require frequent battery charging or replacement, resulting in issues such as increased stress for users and costs for companies. Therefore, ultra-low power consumption MCUs that significantly elongate the battery life of battery-operated IoT devices are required. Furthermore, there are growing interests in energy harvesting IoT devices that operate by collecting small amounts of energy from the environment such as light, vibrations, changes in temperature, wind power, and ultra-low power consumption MCUs are required to realize this.

Key applications

@Vinay Thapliyal  Ultra-low power microcontrollers are often used in consumer electronics such as wearables, accessories, smartphones, smart home devices, laptops, gaming devices and intelligent appliances. Semiconductor manufacturers are producing space-efficient packages and electronic components and on designing devices that consume less power to meet these needs.

High performance and improved embedded security are also key market requirements. These market trends further drive the demand for more intelligent and connected applications and IoT devices.

On top of this, the recent COVID-19 outbreak has highlighted the need for high performance, ultra-low-power healthcare applications and for products related to telemedicine applications, personal healthcare and hygiene products.

@Mark Beecham  Key applications for low-power MCUs include continuous glucose monitors, asset trackers, security sensors, and environmental sensors that monitor light and temperature. In addition, bolt-on industrial IoT monitors provide diagnostics and key data transmitted wirelessly without requiring redesign of proven and complex embedded industrial systems.

@Toru Moriya Smart watches are consuming more power due to increases in activity monitoring and display functions, resulting in the need for improved battery life while improving functions. This means that the demand for ultra-low power consumption MCUs are increasing, as they can fulfil both requirementsof longer battery life and improved functions.

In addition, the demand for ultra-low power consumptions MCUs for developing maintenance-free devices are also increasing as home, building and industrial use sensors such as security sensors, and fire detection devices are increasingly placed in areas that are hard to reach, resulting in increase costs for manually replacing batteries.

New markets such as agriculture also see an increased demand for ultra-low power consumption MCUs in order to reduce maintenance cost and not needing battery replacement in sensors for monitoring soil and temperature in a large piece of land, or sensors for gathering biological information on cattle.

Products & Solutions

STMicroelectronics

ST’s ultra-low power microcontrollers offer designers of energy-efficient embedded systems and applications the widest choice of products pin-to-pin compatible and providing best-in class power consumption. The portfolio includes the STM8L (8-bit proprietary core), the STM32L4 (32-bit Arm® Cortex®-M4), the STM32L0 (Arm® Cortex®-M0+) and the STM32L1 (Arm® Cortex®-M3). The STM32L5 MCU (Arm® Cortex®-M33) with its enhanced security features is the latest addition to this rich portfolio.

ST’s industrial-grade STM8L/STM32L MCUs operate at -40 to 125°C and achieve the industry’s lowest current variation, guaranteeing outstanding low-current consumption at high temperatures.

The new STM32L5 series assures enhanced security features that leverage Arm® Cortex®-M33 core and its TrustZone® for Armv8-M. Thanks to this new core and a new ST ART Accelerator™ (which also supports external memory), the STM32L5 delivers an impressive 442 EEMBC CoreMark score.

The STM32L4 series offers the excellence of ST’s ultra-low power platform with an additional performance dimension by providing 100 DMIPS with DSP instructions and Floating-Point Unit (FPU), more memory (up to 1 Mbyte of Flash memory) and innovative features.

The STM32L4+ series extends STM32L4 technology by offering higher performance (120 MHz/409 CoreMark executing from internal Flash memory), larger embedded memories (up to 2 Mbytes of Flash memory and 640 Kbytes of SRAM), and rendering advanced graphics without compromising ultra-low-power consumption.

The STM32L0 series offers an energy-saving solution for entry-level applications. Available in tiny packages down to 14 pins and with a wide range of Flash memory densities from 8 to 192 Kbytes, the STM32L0 features ultra-low power consumption from a competitive portfolio.

All ultra-low-power microcontroller are supported by an outstanding development ecosystem.

Silicon Labs

Wireless Gecko Series 2 platform: Series 2 is the next generation of Silicon Labs’ Wireless Gecko platform, designed to make IoT products more powerful, efficient and reliable. Building on the leading RF capabilities of the Wireless Gecko Series 1 portfolio, Series 2 provides the industry’s most versatile and scalable IoT connectivity platform.

Wireless Gecko Series 1 platform: Silicon Labs launched the first generation of Wireless Gecko in early 2016. Since that time, the Wireless Gecko Series 1 platform of SoCs, modules and software has become the industry’s leading solution for multiprotocol, multiband IoT connectivity, providing flexible wireless protocol and price/performance options for a wide range of IoT applications and markets.

EFM32 Gecko microcontrollers: Silicon Labs’ 32-bit Gecko MCUs provide the foundational energy-friendly technology for the Wireless Gecko platform. Silicon Labs gained the EFM32 Gecko portfolio with the acquisition of the Oslo, Norway-based, ultra-low-power MCU innovator Energy Micro in 2013. Since then, Silicon Labs has continued to enhance and expand the Gecko MCU portfolio with peripheral and memory options to address a wide range of general-purpose embedded design needs.

EFM8 microcontrollers: Silicon Labs’ 8-bit 8051-based EFM8 MCU portfolio targets ultra-low-power, small-footprint, cost-sensitive embedded applications.

Renesas Electronics

Renesas RE01 Group embedded controllers use Renesas’ innovative SOTB™ process technology to realize ultra-low active and standby current and high-speed operation (max. 64MHz) at low voltage (1.62V), which is impossible with a conventional bulk transistor, and can operate by energy harvesting.

  • Innovative ultra-low power technology
    • Based on Renesas SOTB™ process technology
    • Ultra-low current consumption in both active and standby
  • Integrated Energy Harvesting Control Circuit enables battery-less and maintenance free operation
  • Intelligence on the edge
    • 64MHz high-speed operation at 1.62V low voltage
    • 32-bit CPU Arm® Cortex®-M0+
  • Low power peripherals
    • Ultra-low power 14-bit ADC,
    • Ultra-low power Flash,
    • 2D Graphics,
    • MIP-LCD parallel I/F
    • Energy Harvesting Controller.

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