As IoT Complexity Multiplies, So Do Solutions for Taming It: Q&A with MCU Maker Renesas

Companies are looking for an easier way to gain a head start advantage with the IoT, yet avoid risk on the development side.

Semir Haddad, director of marketing, MCU and MPU Product Solutions, Renesas Electronics America, spoke recently with EECatalog about challenges facing developers as the Industrial IoT continues to evolve.

EECatalog: What are keeping an eye on with regard to the Industrial IoT?

Semir HaddadheadshotSemir Haddad, Renesas: One is that we are seeing the [Industrial IoT] becoming a reality. We are starting to see more development for the IoT. Before 2014, the IoT was really more something that people were thinking about and discussing with no real application, but we are starting to see more “real” implementations. It’s not just a matter of connecting devices to the Internet; we’re also seeing people thinking about new business models and the new applications that can be developed to take advantage of the new connectivity.

We focus a lot on the “thing,” and as MCU experts, we are making it easier for our customers to connect this “thing” and achieve their applications. We have a complete platform that we bundle with software, an RTOS, and communication stacks, meaning we have a complete foundation [upon which to build] for applications.

Within the IoT there are many challenges for everyone in the industry. The complexity has increased because of the approach needed to build a product that will be connected.

EECatalog: What head start over the competition has your approach (focus on the “thing”) given you?

Haddad, Renesas: There are several considerations to take into account when you plan to connect a device to the cloud and you want to develop an IoT application.

First, the software complexity will increase. While you still continue your regular operation, you could be interrupted by a communication, so you will need to have a communications stack. If you are going to develop an IoT application, you will have more complex software.

You will also need to use an RTOS.

According to our own research, and data from market research companies, we estimate that less than 25% of MCU-based products use a commercial grade RTOS; their use depends on the circumstances. We believe that the complexity of the IoT will require the use of an RTOS most of the time, which is why we’ve bundled an RTOS from Express Logic inside the Renesas Synergy.

Second, there are some concerns about security when you connect the device to the cloud—this is a big concern for many of the people who develop applications for the IoT. Knowing this, with our new platform, the Renesas Synergy Platform, we have built in a lot of security features for the devices and inside the software stack, with support for key [encryption], to  deliver a very secure solution.

Designing for the IoT in particular, the Renesas Synergy platform helps developers who are looking for ways to minimize the risk and reduce the time that it takes them to get their devices to market. Because of the complexity they are dealing with, they need something that makes it easier for them to get that head start, but to do it without adding to their risk on the development side.

EECatalog: Are there issues that stymie the best intents not only of Renesas, but the industry overall?

Haddad, Renesas: Standardization can be a challenge. While we are starting to see more customers start their projects with the IoT [in mind], there is no real standard for the IoT. That is a concern, but there are protocols that seem to be more widely adopted, and in the end, problems can be overcome if you have a flexible and scalable platform.

That’s what we’re doing. We make it very scalable, and we allow many partners to come and join the solution to make it easier for customers to work with.

We are at the point [in the history of] the IoT where you need to be very flexible. Unlike the consumer landscape, where you have a spec and you have to comply with it, there is no particular standard spec, so you need solutions that are flexible, that can be upgraded, and that can be adapted to new standards.

EECatalog: Like flexibility, stretching battery life for as long as possible seems to be another thing closely tied to the IoT.

Haddad, Renesas: In the context of the IoT, low power is often associated with wireless; it is often the most energy-efficient power. Renesas has developed some very low-power devices, like the ultra-low power 16-bit RL78 (MCU) family.

However, power is not only about the pure numbers or the technology specs; it’s also about design, and we have designed a very smart way to save power. For instance, with the RL78 MCUs, we have power-saving standby operating modes—HALT, STOP and SNOOZE—that enable designers to reduce average operating current and maximize battery life.

The SNOOZE mode in the RL78 device means you can operate the Analog Digital Converter (ADC) without intervention from the CPU. That is useful if you have a connected sensor. If you have an alarm, the ADC will convert the measurement coming from the sensor. When you reach the point at which the alarm goes off, the ADC will wake up the CPU. So all the time when the ADC is running, you just have the ADC running, which could allow you to cut your energy consumption to one-fifth of what it might be if you had to have the CPU running continuously. Then, when you need to, you can wake up the CPU.

This can be used, for instance, if you have a sensor on a heating device or a sensor on a tank, like those that restaurants use as grease traps. When the tank is full, it can send a message for somebody to come and empty it.

In terms of battery power, for deployments in the field, you want the battery to last as long as possible—so saving power by not having the CPU being continually active is also important.

EECatalog: What are some of the steps Renesas takes to support companies starting IoT projects?

Haddad, Renesas: Companies need to make a choice that is both scalable and flexible for the future. Customers may have had a solution that was working for 10 to 15 years, and they don’t want to change anything, but they will have to change because they will have pressure from the competition. You want to make a good choice for the future and be confident that you will be supported. That’s where we come in. With something like the Renesas Synergy Platform, we’re addressing concerns for time to market and barriers to entry; we’re providing an integrated platform, with software free of charge as part of the solution, and it’s both flexible and scalable. If companies want to bring new technology in the future, this is a platform that will enable that.

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