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Connectivity chips Sensors and embedded

Freescale launches first multi-mode Thread and Bluetooth MCU

Freescale Semiconductor has launched the KW41Z, the first multi-mode radio chip that supports Thread and Bluetooth 4.2 in concurrent operation. Part of Freescale’s Kinetis family, the 32-bit MCU will likely appear inside devices aiming to bridge the gap between consumer electronics (Bluetooth) and the low-power environmental devices that will comprise the IoT (in this case, inside smart home sensors and actuators).

Based on a Cortex-M0+ with a clock speed of up to 48MHz, the processor will run a complete software stack, as well as applications. With a 16-bit ADC, as well as a DC-DC converter with buck and boost to accommodate different power supplies, the chip can be configured with up to 512kB of flash memory and 128kB of SRAM. The KW41Z is rated for operation between -40°C and 85°C, and will be sampling in Q2 2016, with shipments beginning the following quarter.

The main benefit of a multi-mode chip is the cost savings that it can provide to engineers that might not have any other choice than using two distinct chips to achieve the same functionality. Single-chip solutions should also provide better economies of scale, which are very important in markets dealing with tens or hundreds of millions of shipments. On that note, Freescale is supporting the launch with its free Kinetis developer kits.

Emmanuel Sambuis, Freescale’s Executive Director of its MCU and Connectivity Products wing, told us that he still sees the smartphone as the link between the consumer and the smart home, and given the mass penetration of Bluetooth 4.0 inside smartphones, multi-mode devices such as the KW41Z will be key to adoption. Example initial projects include the Zumo robot, a patch-based heartbeat monitor, and an accelerometer-based movement sensor.

As a founding member of the Thread Group, Freescale has been heavily involved in the standardization process of the low-power protocol, which also boasts the Google-owned Nest as a board member. Make no mistake about it, Google and Android are heavily involved in Thread, and this positions it (to an extent) in opposition to Apple – which has so far decided to stick with tried and tested Bluetooth and WiFi as the transport mediums for its HomeKit smart home framework.

Thread is a low-power personal area network (PAN), similar in operation to ZigBee, with IPv6 support (via 6LoWPAN support) and largely based on the IEEE 802.15.4 MAC and PHY specification – but running in the 2.4GHz band, instead of the sub-GHz ISM bands that are typically more closely associated with 802.15.4.

It has now been standardized, and the certification process is due to begin within the next few weeks, with membership of the Thread Group (founded by Nest, Samsung, Freescale, ARM, Silicon Labs, Big Ass Fans, and Yale, and now joined by Samsung and Qualcomm, among many others) required in order to use the logo. The big draw of the protocol is its ability to run on existing 802.15.4 hardware via a software update, which means that many ZigBee devices could be converted to Thread, as ZigBee uses the 2.4GHz band.

Both Thread and HomeKit seemed poised for product launches in the summer, with the two big Google and Apple conferences likely candidates for the unveiling of a smart home consumer strategy – which the industry seemed poised on the edge of for the preceding quarter. However, such launches failed to materialize, and the two companies are running out of time to begin marketing such a strategy in the run up to the holiday season.

It seemed certain that the new version of the Apple TV would feature HomeKit and smart home functionality as a strong selling point, and perhaps it will surface in future software updates. For now, the Apple TV lurks as the unacknowledged center of Apple’s smart home strategy, with a slow trickle of HomeKit enabled products leaking out onto the market.

Thread meanwhile, whose flagship product is the Nest Learning Thermostat, is only just beginning its certification process, and so isn’t suffering from that slow rollout – because it hasn’t really begun yet. Apple may have bungled a potentially triumphant HomeKit launch, but at least Google still has Thread in reserve, to use as a central message in a pre-holiday marketing campaign, likely with Nest as a centerpiece and Google Now singing the virtues of home automation.

“The powerful combination of multi-mode wireless connectivity support, optimized RF performance, and the ability to run our proprietary applications makes Freescale’s KQ41Z MCU an exceptionally compelling choice for our next generation of end-to-end IoT solutions,” said Tolga Latif, the CEO of Linx Technologies. “The KW41Z allows us to rapidaly develop Thread-based IoT products, featuring the latest functions such as using BLE for sideband commissioning.”

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