Freescale: From smart sensors to intelligent sensor hub

May 24, 2011
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Stephane Gervais-Ducouret, Freescale Semiconductor’s global marketing director

Freescale Semiconductor have been in the component manufacturing business as part of Motorola since 1949, though it spun off from the latter in 2006. It has been the largest semiconductor and sensor supplier for the US automotive industry from its inception. But since the integration of sensors in products such as smartphones, gaming controllers and the iPad, the company sold more sensors in the last five years than the previous 25.

The latest iteration of smart sensors take sensory data gathering to another level, offering embedded logic chips to make it simpler for manufacturers to integrate them into their products. But that was last year’s news. To find out more about the future of sensor components in consumer electronic devices, CNET Asia interviewed Stephane Gervais-Ducouret, Freescale Semiconductor’s global marketing director.

How has sensor technology changed over time?

Stephane Gervais-Ducouret: In 2006, we started with the accelerometer for consumer electronics. In 2010, we’ve launched our full family of smart sensors and the performance increase has been dramatic. We had huge improvements on power consumption and sensitivity. For example, in 2006 the accelerometer could only detect portrait and landscape modes as sensitivity was relatively low. Now it is so high that the sensor can detect vibrations and tilting of the device.

On top of that we add even more features to the sensor. In the past a sensor can detect only the X,Y and Z axis, now it can tell if the device is being dropped.

So is the smart sensor processing the data now?

Stephane: No. What we did was embedded logic. We created some specific functions which filter the information before it’s used by the computing processor. For example, when the sensor detects a specific tilt or movement (i.e. from portrait to landscape), it will send a command to the main application processor to execute an action, instead of it having to process the raw data. Some common embedded commands include sleep/wake modes and file management (i.e. shake to change music tracks).

So what are the limitations of smart sensors?

Stephane: Even though the smart sensor is intelligent, it cannot be customized to any application as the embedded logic is fixed. The manufacturer can tweak the registry to change an action based on the feedback of the smart sensor but cannot change the type of command sent by the smart sensor.

Another issue is that the more sensors you add–even smart sensors–the greater the power consumption. So this year, we are going another step and introducing the intelligent sensor hub.

How does the intelligent sensor hub differ from smart sensor technology?

Stephane: Unlike the smart sensor, the intelligent sensor hub has a sub-processor which actually processes the data before sending it to the application processor. It also has some flash memory for storage. Now you can customize the functions of the sensor at the software level. The intelligent sensor can even aggregate the information from various sensors and process them before sending the command to the applications chip.

So what are the key advantages of the intelligent sensor hub?

Stephane: Because the more sensors you have, the more data needs to be processed by the main chip. The intelligent sensor hub offers a distributed processing model, which offloads the task from the applications processor. The sub-processor uses power in the microwatts, compared to miliwatts for the main chip, which gives a hundred times the power savings.

This lets the intelligent sensor hub gather and process data continuously even while the main chip is on standby mode. The information can be stored on the flash memory so that the main chip can access the data history when required. This is a great advantage for sensors such as the GPS chip, reducing the amount of time it takes for a location fix since the sensor doesn’t go to sleep when the device is on standby.

Another example is the e-compass. At this time, you need to hold the device flat to determine direction. But with the intelligent sensor hub, you can hold the compass in any position as it can gather data from the accelerometer and gravity sensor to compensate for the tilt.

Overall, this reduces the amount of data transferred as well as processing required, significantly increasing battery life and sensor performance.

When will we see the first devices with intelligent sensor hubs?

Stephane: We have had the components since last year and we will officially launch the technology in June. So we can start to expect the first devices to hit the markets later this year.

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