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Tiny Embedded Boards

Written by Michael Lynes

Size Matters


  • Who are major players in tiny embedded boards?
  • What’s the latest in tiny embedded systems technology?
  • What are interesting new tiny embedded devices?
  • Embedded boards

Yes, sorry to say fellow engineers, the ancient saw is true. Size not only matters, but it’s a critical acceptance parameter. I’ve done the research, conducted extensive, in-depth interviews, and can state here definitively that the jury has returned their verdict: Smaller is better. But no matter what the size, it’s also important what you can do with it.

Hold on a minute there! I can see that you’re getting all excited but it’s not what you think. Get your mind out of the flux gutter and pay attention. This is not some random post on Twitter, er, um, X. We’re talking about embedded board size. And, as the red circles around your eyes from the magnifying lab goggles you need just to place your scope probe in the approximate location of the pin on the ultra-fine pitch SMT part that your current embedded project is using can attest, they’re getting smaller by the day.

Now don’t get me wrong—despite the inordinately long run-on sentence you just waded through, I’m not advocating for the return of through-hole components, 16-bit multiplexed address/data buses, or discrete ICs with tenth-of-an-inch lead spacing (Figure 1). It’s just that as I continue to ripen into juicy, soft, senior-EE-hood, my eyes aren’t what they used to be. As any regular reader of this space may already know, I’m somewhat visually challenged, and ever since I can remember I’ve always been forced to wear corrective lenses to mitigate that condition. Technically my nearsightedness is so severe that I am legally blind in one eye. When you can’t see the big ‘E’ on the chart with your right hand covering your left eye, they hand you a cane, a tin cup, and some dark glasses at the ophthalmologist’s office and send you on your way. Though this condition can be an obstacle when you want to operate a motor vehicle or play a nice set of tennis, it comes in handy whenever I need to do an up-close inspection of some grain-of-sand-sized SMT component (Figure 2).

When tasked with identifying the aforementioned sand grain, my optical handicap suddenly becomes a super-power. Fellow OG-EEs stare in frank admiration as I whip off my Coke bottle lenses, bring the part up right under my nose, and, using my uber-myopic right eye to zoom in on the microscopic font incised on the offending component, read off the numbers. Of course, even 20/400 micro-vision isn’t going to cut it when we have folks like IBM creating chips with 2nm (yes, that’s 2 nanometers) transistor spacing (Figure 3), with the capability to place 50 billion (yes, that’s billion with a ‘b’) transistors, each about five atoms wide, in a space roughly the size of one olde-style 555 timer chip. So, considering the trend, smaller is here to stay.

FIGURE 1
Olde-timey IC lead spacing
FIGURE 1
Olde-timey IC lead spacing
FIGURE 2 
Teeny-tiny SMT
FIGURE 2
Teeny-tiny SMT
FIGURE 3 
Uber-uber-small chip tech
FIGURE 3
Uber-uber-small chip tech

In fact, “smaller” is a chief characteristic of the broad category of iterative innovation itself. Looking at technology from this perspective, several truisms become clear. One of them is expressed by Moore’s law [1], famously proposed by (and named after) Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel. Moore’s “law” (though it’s more of an observation than a true physical law) holds that computing power, as expressed in terms of semiconductor density, doubles approximately every two years or so. It’s a special case of the nature of all technologies to decrease in cost or rise in capability exponentially over time. This type of inverse relationship was first expressed by aeronautical engineer Theodore Wright, who observed in 1936 that “[the] cost of airplanes fell as the number of planes manufactured rose” [2]. Specifically, he observed that the cost was inversely proportional to the number of planes manufactured raised to some power.

This theory has since been put forward as a more general law that governs the costs of technological products, and is often explained on the basis that the more a particular technology is manufactured, the better and more efficient it gets. Technologies broadly tend to become more powerful and capable over time, while their prices don’t increase and, indeed, often decrease. Consider, as another example, the cost of non-volatile data storage. With each successive innovation, storage density increases, while unit cost remains nearly constant. The overall trend is that per-bit cost decreases exponentially at some rate.

Novel inventions occur first as stepwise discontinuous discoveries, sudden leaps forward if you will. There are long stretches where nothing much changes, and then one fine morning a bright young engineer wakes up and invents the wheel, or the lever, or disposable napkins, or some such thing. The new thing is then tested in the marketplace. Surviving technologies, those that accrue a degree of market success, provoke a flurry of duplication, with the basic invention remaining relatively unchanged, and engineering efforts go toward developing applications or adaptations of the original design. Successive rounds of iterative innovation increase the overall number of units produced, and subsequently result in the aforementioned exponential improvement in capability over some time frame.

Often the iterative effort to improve a basic technology can result in a secondary invention, which, though derivative, can still be a significant advance. Hence the far greater prevalence of designs like the transistor radio, patented in 1954 by Texas Instruments [3], than true inventions or discoveries like U.S. Patent No. 1745175 [4], submitted in 1926 by Julius Edgar Lilienfeld for his invention of the transistor junction itself, the result of many years of research in semiconducting materials.

The transistor, and its subsequent refinement into a marketable device through the efforts of William B. Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter H Brattain of Bell Laboratories [5], is arguably one of the most important discoveries of the last hundred years. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the totality of our modern world rests upon that foundational invention. Further, no single device since has had a more profound impact on the size, capability, and efficiency of computing platforms. But to refer again to Moore’s law, we seem to be reaching a plateau in the exponential curve. The physical constraints of junction size, speed of electrons in the medium, and heat dissipation all seem to be at or near their limits. Still, as we speak, some introverted cellar dweller may be on the verge of a breakthrough that will revolutionize the industry once more. Only time will tell.

And with that, we return to our topic of embedded board size with fresh eyes. As we can now see, embedded boards are the downstream beneficiaries of innovation in the Junction Density Space Race, if you will. This has allowed designers to place whole embedded systems or subsystems within a single chip, moving vast amounts of capability out to the very edge of the edge of the Internet. Below we will explore several companies who are operating in this arena. There is a lot going on here, and frankly, this OG-EE was astonished by what he found. So, with all that said—let’s get small.

GETTING SMALL

Lantronix: Put those lab goggles back on, because you’re going to need them. First up on our teeny-tiny list is the Xpico suite of embedded Internet-of-Things (IoT) products from Lantronix [6]. One of the most powerful market drivers of miniaturization in the last few years has been the explosion of IoT. Consumers can’t get enough low-power, high-capability, extremely small-footprint devices. And Lantronix is at the forefront of companies in this space. Founded in 1989 in Irvine California, Lantronix was initially focused on networking peripherals—primarily network-connected print servers. As networks moved into small and medium-sized enterprises, Lantronix continued to innovate, making their devices less expensive and easier to use and maintain—especially with the emergence of home Wi-Fi networks in the 2000s.

Serving this trend, the company rose to become one of the premier providers of wireless and wired networking devices. IoT was a natural extension of this specialization. The market drove its embedded devices towards even smaller form factors. As you can see in Figure 4, its line of wired and wireless IoT devices is incredibly small. The board you see pictured (Figure 5) has a full TCP/IP stack, embedded security profiles, AES 256 encryption, two RS232 serial ports, up to 16 GPIO pins, and an integrated 10/100 ethernet PHY. Power consumption for this configuration in operating mode is typically less than 250mA. For those interested, Lantronix’s eval kit package is available as a download on Circuit Cellar’s Article Materials and Resources web page, as well as a link to its developer kit guide [7].

FIGURE 4
Xpico versus George Washington
FIGURE 4
Xpico versus George Washington
FIGURE 5
Xpico Wi-Fi
FIGURE 5
Xpico Wi-Fi

NVIDIA: Another name in this space is NVIDIA [8]. Known more broadly for its graphics engines, NVIDIA is active in the Artificial Intelligence (AI) sector as well. As AI follows the IoT out to the edges of the network, the need for powerful, compact, and power-efficient AI platforms only gets stronger. Serving this market trend, NVIDIA has developed the Jetson Nano, an AI-capable embedded computing device that it says will “[open] new worlds of IoT applications, including entry-level Network Video Recorders (NVRs), home robots, and intelligent gateways with full analytics capabilities.” In addition to the Jetson Nano, NVIDIA has a full line of miniaturized AI platforms, with the entry-level JetBot (Figure 6) aimed at the student/hobbyist market. That said, the Nano is far from just a toy. Leveraging Moore’s and Wright’s laws, the Nano brings powerful robotics processing power to the user at a competitive price. See Circuit Cellar’s Article Materials and Resources web page for a video that demonstrates how capable this platform is [9]. And NVIDIA’s hosted community platform is chock-full of resources for everyone—from the beginner to the AI maven [10].

FIGURE 6 
NVIDIA Nano JetBot
FIGURE 6
NVIDIA Nano JetBot

Toshiba: Next on my uber-small list is Toshiba, which has jumped headlong into the race for the smallest Bluetooth module. Toshiba has a long history in semiconductor components, microprocessors, Systems-on-Integrated-Chips (SoICs), non-volatile data storage, and much more. Bluetooth has become an important modality for wireless communications in the embedded board space. With the ubiquity of this mode of communication has come additional constraints on bandwidth (maximizing the efficiency of the band), along with the need for strong error correction, dynamic configuration, and minimal power consumption. Enter Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) devices designed to meet the requirements for low-power environments (think: earbuds), and the race was on to make the smallest BLE with the lowest possible power consumption profile. Toshiba SASP BLE (Figure 7) is the current record holder [11]. Based on its partnership with Nordic Semiconductor, Toshiba has developed the world’s smallest BLE device using Nordic’s nRF52811 System-on-Chip (SoC), in a 4mm x 100mm integrated package (that includes the antenna). The device incorporates a 64Mhz Arm Cortex M4, with PDM, PWM, SPI, UART and TWI interfaces. Add in a fast 12-bit ADC, and it still weighs in at an amazing 0.09g, using less than 5mA peak current in 0dbm TX mode.

FIGURE 7 
World’s Smallest BLE Device
FIGURE 7
World’s Smallest BLE Device

Nordic Semiconductor: Speaking of Nordic [12], its BLE chip is not the only offering it has in the super-super-small embedded board marketplace. The company also manufactures the nPM6001 Power Management IC (PMIC) (Figure 8), built to give designers fine control of six independent rails/power domains. Each domain can be independently regulated, powered down, and woken up as needed. The package, measuring a mere 2.2mm x 3.6 mm, has selectable voltage outputs from 0.5VDC to 3.3VDC, with four highly efficient step-down buck regulators. Additionally, two low dropout (LDO) regulators can supply up to 15mA fixed at 1.8VDC or selectable between 1.8VDC and 3.3VDC at 30mA. The typical quiescent current draw for this part is only 1.2µA. The PMIC also has an ultra-low power mode that it can enter based on a programmable WDT expiration time. In this mode, consumption drops to an astonishing 300nA.

FIGURE 8 
Nordic Semiconductor PMIC
FIGURE 8
Nordic Semiconductor PMIC
IS IT IN YET?

All the above components, and many others besides those mentioned, are just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. There are many other companies leveraging these minuscule components to give developers the most flexible, and ultimately the smallest, embedded platforms.

Espressif Systems: In that vein, we have companies like Espressif Systems, with its ESP32 line of embedded boards. The ESP32-PICO [13] is one of a series of embedded development platforms, designed with the prototype builder in mind, that allows a developer the freedom to design their embedded application with confidence in the tools and environment. The ESP supports Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and UART interfaces, has a full USB interface for programming, and is supported by multiple flavors of Linux and other embedded OS like FreeRTOS. As you can see in Figure 9, the board has an efficient layout with lots of I/O and on-board memory. Multiple frameworks are supported, including Google IoT Core, AWS IoT, and Aliyun, to name a few. Espressif also provides its own native frameworks for Wi-Fi mesh networking, DSP, audio processing, and facial recognition.

MIKROE: Another great option for the embedded programmer is the EasyAVR PRO 8 from MIKROE [14]. MIKROE is a development tools provider, and its EasyAVR PRO supports a large variety of microcontrollers, PICs, embedded displays, and I/O devices. It comes as part of its Wi-Fi-capable software development kit (SDK) (Figure 10) that enables your chosen embedded platform to be flashed and debugged over the air (OTA) on your in-house wireless network.

Founded in 2001, MIKROE specializes in making the tools and development environments that embedded designers need to be efficient and productive. It’s always pushing the envelope, supporting the most popular and efficient embedded controllers, and is a partner that can take your project from initial concept to final production design, so you can miniaturize and move to a fully independent device in a shorter period of time.

Arduino: No discussion of embedded boards would be complete without a paragraph on Arduino [15]. Now, hold on—I can already see you purists rolling your eyes. But despite the Arduino sketch development environment’s bad rap, and that Arduino devices have been hit-or-miss when it comes to quality and support, overall, the platform has made a significant inroad into the engineering prototype space, crossing over from hobbyist into homegrown lab equipment, controllers of various sorts, Proof of Concept (POC) boards, and laboratory curiosities of all types. The nice part about this platform is the price. Following our friends Moore and Wright, the Nano (Figure 11) can be purchased directly from Arduino for as little as $30. That, plus their free development environment, can get your project jumpstarted in short order.

FIGURE 9
ESP PICO development board
FIGURE 9
ESP PICO development board
FIGURE 10 
MIKROE EasyAVR
FIGURE 10
MIKROE EasyAVR
FIGURE 11
Arduino Nano
FIGURE 11
Arduino Nano

Raspberry Pi: And, of course, we must mention the Raspberry Pis. Famously taking the embedded Linux world by storm, the original Raspberry Pi was a revolutionary device: a cheap, powerful, all-in-one embedded development platform that bridged the gap from microcomputer-based Linux to the embedded space. It brought the competition to other embedded operating system providers of the day, like Wind River Systems’ VxWorks.

The Raspberry Pi Pico [16] is the latest generation, an inexpensive (as low as $4) device that incorporates a host of major-league capabilities. The RP2040 features a dual-core Arm Cortex-M0+ processor, 264kB internal RAM, and support for up to 16MB of off-chip flash. I/O options include I2C, SPI, and configurable numbers of programmable I/O (GPIO) pins. Raspberry Pi supports the developer with a robust IDE, and there are many off-the-shelf Linux kernel builds that can be loaded onto the platform. Despite their low price point, knockoffs abound—hence the Fruit Pi spectrum of compatible boards to choose from.

Raspberry Pi and Arduino are direct competitors in the embedded board space (Figure 12), each trying to outperform the other on price and feature sets. The winner here is the developer, as the competition for the smallest, most powerful, and cheapest embedded platform rages on.

Adafruit: Last, but far from least, we have Adafruit [17], with its Feather line of embedded boards. Adafruit is one of the more solid providers of embedded technology, with a reputation for well-tested, stable components, cleanly integrated embedded peripherals, and robust development platforms. The Feather is no exception. As Figure 13 shows, they offer a highly customizable array of Feathers. Each one has a similar core functionality but is outfitted with specific peripherals and I/O suites to meet a range of designer needs. The microprocessor cores on the Feather are largely from the Arduino family. But Adafruit’s dedication to quality and tested reliability sets them apart from other offerings.

A good resource for more information on tiny embedded boards is RS DesignSpark [18]. There are lots of articles written by people in the industry, with links to original content in the articles. Well worth signing up (it’s free).

FIGURE 12
Raspberry PI versus Arduino
FIGURE 12
Raspberry PI versus Arduino
FIGURE 13
Adafruit Feather configurations
FIGURE 13
Adafruit Feather configurations
THE FINE PRINT

Whew! I don’t know about you, but for this OG-EE that was a lot of squinting. Time to drag those lab-googles off your face, rub your burning eyes, and take a break. After all, it’s October, pumpkin spice is everywhere, and the lab is starting to look even scarier than usual. Stand up, take a couple of deep breaths and a stretch, get a cup of something hot, put on your shabby jacket, and go out into the crisp sunshine. Focus your eyes on something bigger, like the big blue sky or the changing leaves, and forget about how many millions of MOSFETs can dance on the head of a silicon pin. The work will always be there, and you’ll be the better for the rest. In fact, I think I’m going to take my own advice, and leaf this (see what I did there?) right here. Until next month. 

REFERENCES
[1] Wikipedia article on Moore’s Law: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moore%27s_law
[2] “Moore’s law is not just for computers”, Nature: https://www.nature.com/articles/nature.2013.12548
[3] Wikipedia article on TI’s Regency TR-1 First Transistor Radio: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regency_TR-1
[4] Wikipedia article on Julius Edgar Lilienfeld: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julius_Edgar_Lilienfeld
[5] Shockley, Bardeen, and Brattain: https://ipwatchdog.com/2017/04/03/transistor-shockley-bardeen-brattain-modern-electronics/id=79427/#:~:text=The%20first%20patent%20covering%20what,Apparatus%20for%20Controlling%20Electric%20Currents
[6] Lantronix XPico: https://www.lantronix.com/products/xpico/
[7] XPico Developer Kit Guide: https://cdn.lantronix.com/wp-content/uploads/pdf/xPico-DevKit_QS.pdf
[8] NVIDIA Jetson: https://www.NVIDIA.com/en-us/autonomous-machines/embedded-systems/
[9] JetBot Video: https://youtu.be/byGZt5ZYup0
[10] Community Platform: https://developer.NVIDIA.com/embedded/community/jetson-projects
[11] Toshiba BLE: SASP https://www.global.toshiba/ww/news/corporate/2021/01/pr1401.html
[12] Nordic Semiconductor PMIC: https://www.nordicsemi.com/Products/nPM6001
[13] ESP32 Pico: https://docs.espressif.com/projects/esp-idf/en/latest/esp32/hw-reference/esp32/get-started-pico-kit.html#get-started-pico-kit-v4-board-front
[14] MIKROE Embedded: https://www.mikroe.com/easyavr-pro-v8#main-buy-field
[15] Arduino NANO: https://store-usa.arduino.cc/products/arduino-nano?selectedStore=us
[16] RasberryPi PICO: https://www.raspberrypi.com/products/raspberry-pi-pico/
[17] Adafruit Feather: https://learn.adafruit.com/adafruit-feather/overview
[18] RS DesignSpark Online—Smalled Embedded Modules: https://www.rs-online.com/designspark/smallest-embedded-modules-to-work-in-2023

SOURCES
Video: https://cdn-shop.adafruit.com/product-videos/1024×768/2995-07.mp4
Original Transistor Patent: https://www.freepatentsonline.com/1745175.pdf
Smallest Chip in the World: IBM 2-NM chip – https://time.com/collection/best-inventions-2022/6228819/ibm-two-nanometer-chip/#:~:text=The%20Smallest%20Chip%20Ever&text=IBM’s%202%2Dnanometer%20(nm,no%20bigger%20than%20your%20fingernail
IC Circuit Packaging: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_integrated_circuit_packaging_types

PUBLISHED IN CIRCUIT CELLAR MAGAZINE • OCTOBER 2023 #399 – Get a PDF of the issue

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Michael Lynes is an entrepreneur who has founded several startup ventures. He was awarded a BSEE degree in Electrical Engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology and currently works as an embedded software engineer. When not occupied with arcane engineering projects, he spends his time playing with his three grandchildren, baking bread, working on ancient cars, backyard birdwatching, and taking amateur photographs. He’s also a prolific author with over thirty works in print. His latest series is the Cozy Crystal Mysteries. Book one, Moonstones and Murder, is already in print, and book two is on its way. His latest works include several collections of ghost stories, short works of general fiction, a collection called Angel Stories, and another collection called November Tales, inspired by the fiction of Ray Bradbury. He currently lives with his wife Margaret in the beautiful, secluded hills of Sussex County, New Jersey. You can contact him via email at mikelynes@gmail.com.

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Tiny Embedded Boards

by Michael Lynes time to read: 13 min