Small DSP Boards

Digital Signal Processors at the Intersection of Form and Function

With ever shrinking geometries resulting in smaller die size, lower power and increased integration, “small board” DSP implementations will power a new generation of applications.


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Consistent with Moore’s law, digital signal processors (DSPs) continue to grow in computational performance and functionality while shrinking in size. The pace of this architectural evolution may fluctuate at times, but the rate at which designers are applying these powerful DSPs to an increasingly wider range of applications continues to accelerate. As DSP vendors pack more processing performance into smaller, denser processors, system developers are empowered to add new product features, create new products and enter new markets.

Today’s advanced DSPs are also equipped with a range of innovative logic, fabrication and architectural features that reduce power consumption at both the processor level and the system level, offering significant advantages to designers who are challenged to extend system battery life and/or enable greater system portability. Utilizing a DSP with lower power consumption, designers can allocate the power saved by the processor to other components, use smaller power supplies, and/or use smaller cooling systems.

Naturally, this trend toward smaller, more power-efficient processors has enabled the latest generation of DSPs to be implemented on smaller boards, moving designers further away from the constraints of traditional backplane-oriented board implementations, and allowing them to realize compact system form factors that could not be achieved even just a few years ago. This trend also enables designers to squeeze more components within a system package, making it possible to integrate greater connectivity, communication and ruggedization features without compromising significant board space.

“Small Board” Application Opportunities

While the implications of this form factor shift will be felt across many markets, industrial, instrumentation and machine-based technologies are particularly well positioned to realize great benefits from this trend in the near term, specifically in the areas of sensing, data collection and smart networking. This trend will open up a realm of innovation opportunities for new and existing DSP-driven applications, all of which will benefit from smaller form factors, improved operational agility, enhanced ruggedization, and of course, greater digital signal processing power.

Sensors and Advanced Sensor Networks—Applications of sensor technology are growing at a rapid clip, driven by an increased need for more granular data acquisition and intelligent data collection systems. As sensors and the DSPs that process the incoming sensor data get smaller and more sophisticated, it’s commonly expected that sensors will soon pervade almost every aspect of our environment.

Consider the market for machine-based surveillance applications. Focusing on the video surveillance market as a subset, we’re already seeing deployments of distributed image sensors elevate the state-of-the-art in video analytics. However, while today’s video surveillance systems are optimized for high-performance video processing, compression and streaming, we are still relatively limited in terms of the flexibility and spatial depth of camera views.

The emergence of visual sensor networks powered by distributed smart cameras and high-performance DSPs will enable surveillance systems to “fuse” images from a variety of viewpoints, yielding a dense 3D reconstruction of a scene that can be viewed from any arbitrary vantage point. The impact of this emerging technology on surveillance, tracking and environmental monitoring applications will be staggering.

Smart Meters/Smart Grid—Though in its infancy today, smart grid technology is quickly emerging as a means to more intelligently manage the transmission and consumption of electricity, which promises to yield significant energy savings and reduce associated costs. To this end, smart meters are beginning to be deployed by companies like Siemens to enable advanced monitoring and communication across power sources and power networks, all the way to the home. Siemens Energy Sectors’ Automated Metering and Information System (AMIS) utilizes advanced DSPs embedded in small form factor modules to deliver essential “demand response” energy usage communication between the consumer and the energy provider, facilitating true whole grid energy management (Figure 1).

The Blackfin DSPs within the AMIS smart meters calculate consumer energy usage and perform power line modem functions. So not only are the DSPs functioning as energy metering mechanisms, they are also enabling bi-directional communication across the grid. This capability enables power companies to manage their infrastructure more intelligently, with the flexibility to implement software upgrades over power lines so as to enable new features and/or conform to evolving industry standards.

With DSP-driven smart meter modules distributed throughout the grid, power companies are enabled to implement energy saving initiatives and respond quickly and effectively to government mandates for increased smart metering.

Miniature Robotics—Powerful, energy-efficient DSPs integrated with advanced sensors via small board implementations will enable a new generation of miniaturized robots that promise to extend the boundaries of what we currently consider to be “explorable terrain.” Smaller, smarter robots will enable advanced exploration and data collection in environments that humans are either unfit or unsafe to tread, with implications for geological, environmental, military and possibly even medical applications.

Recent advances in actuator, power source and control electronics technologies are enabling companies like Boston Engineering to prototype autonomous underwater vehicles that look—and swim—like small fish. With the ability to cover up to three times the distance of propeller-driven devices via its tuna-mimicking propulsion system, the “GhostSwimmer” aquatic robot developed by Boston Engineering, in partnership with the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering represents a pioneering application of biomimetic science, and is being considered by the U.S. Navy for deployment on underwater reconnaissance missions (Figure 2).

By land and by sea, miniaturized robots like the GhostSwimmer have the potential to transform the means by which we extract data from an environment. Advanced DSP technology implemented via small boards will play a critical role in the real-time processing of that data.

Handheld/Battery-Powered Medical Instruments—Small board DSP implementations have already had a transformative impact on the medical equipment market, yielding compact, lightweight, battery operational devices that can enable medical professionals to examine patients in the field. Extending sophisticated medical capabilities outside of the hospital for use at the scene of a medical emergency, these DSP-powered devices ensure highly precise diagnostic information that first responders can count on to expedite treatment decisions.

Battery life is an especially critical consideration for these applications, as a single lapse in system operations can literally mean the difference between life and death. By utilizing DSPs with low power consumption and dynamic power management capabilities, medical device designers can implement more efficient power supply architectures within portable systems, which helps to preserve device battery life—and board space.

Processors that feature gated clock core designs that selectively power down functional units on an instruction-by-instruction basis can be especially useful for these applications, as can processors that support power-down modes for periods where little or no CPU activity is required. DSPs with advanced memory architectures, I/O interfaces and integrated peripherals further enable engineers to minimize off-chip components and communication, reducing system-level power consumption.

System Ruggedization—Inherent in many of the systems mentioned earlier are advanced ruggedization techniques that protect them from the elements, and from shock and vibration damage. Small form factor systems are naturally easier to protect from water damage, due to the fact that smaller systems are easier to package in watertight enclosures. Tightly integrated system components are also better resistant to vibration damage, and leave greater space for designers to integrate cushioning and device stabilization mechanisms within a system.

Small, ruggedized systems with advanced sensing capabilities will increasingly be utilized for monitoring and exploration applications in harsh environments. Enterprises that deal in natural resources and/or utility infrastructure—especially those involved in petrol and water management systems—will gain significant benefits through the use of fluid and vibration-resistant systems. DSP-driven systems are especially important for yielding precise calculations pertaining to high-value resources like petrol. But then, in this age of environmental conservation and dwindling natural resources, even a resource as seemingly plentiful as water must be measured and managed with tremendous accuracy, depending on where in the world you reside.

Next-Generation Embedded Computing Platforms

While any new technology shift has the potential to introduce new layers of complexity within product development cycles, the shift to small DSP boards needn’t negatively impact time-to-market dynamics. Indeed, embedded vendors and distributors are increasingly incorporating small DSP boards into flexible reference design and prototyping platforms to enable greater off-the-shelf convenience for developers.

DSP boards that come “preintegrated” within reference design and prototyping platforms enable designers to simplify product development processes and reduce system complexity via an integrated platform that lends itself to easy reuse and application repurposing. Specialized partner knowledge and expansive support ecosystems further enable designers to achieve shorter development cycles.

Initiatives such as Spoerle’s Embedded Platform Concept (EPC), for example, are designed to provide embedded developers with ready access to flexible combinations of components and software in order to expedite development processes. Programs like this provide users with pre-tested, application-tuned reference boards, specifically developed to enable designers to customize applications and implement homegrown DSP algorithms with a minimum of effort.

Boston Engineering’s “FlexStack” embedded computing architecture is another great example of how small board DSP implementation can be achieved via an integrated product prototyping and production platform. Optimized for use in small, power-efficient devices, FlexStack boards are ultra-compact (64 mm x 64 mm x 20 mm) and can literally be stacked on top of each other like building blocks to achieve a combination of peripherals that best meets a designer’s needs (Figure 3).

Of course, these “building blocks” are not toys, but rather elegant implementations of small board DSP technology that promise to unlock a whole new world of applications that deliver DSP-caliber computational power in increasingly compact designs. With a wide breadth of technology capabilities literally in the palms of their hands, designers are better equipped to meet demanding “form” requirements, while giving no ground in the pursuit of greater “function.”

Analog Devices, Inc.,
Norwood, MA 02062
781 329 4700