NXP: How chips work in the IoT

NXP: How chips work in the IoT

Most of us use NXP Semiconductor technology everyday without even realizing it. Image Source: Adrian Bridgwater

Companies that focus on making the internal components underpinning the IoT sometimes fail to grab as many headlines as the usual suspects. Let’s not forget, embedded computing was never considered awfully ‘sexy’ until people started talking about wearables, digital twins, Internet-powered toasters and the IoT at large.

Time for a refocus

Dutch headquartered NXP Semiconductors is typical of the firms that are now getting more attention. Specializing in automotive semiconductors and automotive cybersecurity (but with fingers in several other industry pies), the company has been around for over 50 years in various forms and guises (the NXP ‘logic’ business started as Signetics and then Philips Semiconductors). It now has over 31,000 employees in more than 33 countries.

It’s also the co-inventor of Near Field Communications (NFC) technology, the protocol many people use every day for contactless payments on public transport systems, for example.

Catching up with NXP, the company recently joined the Automotive Information Sharing and Analysis Center (Auto-ISAC). Auto-ISAC was formed by automakers as a platform for sharing, tracking and analyzing intelligence about cyber threats and potential vulnerabilities around connected vehicles.

NXP has called for connected car security to be addressed jointly by carmakers, security experts and government bodies. Part of the issue here is that the technology is ahead of the industry – that is to say, there could be an awful lot more IT into vehicles than there is already, it’s a question of finding out what manufacturers are prepared to implement, what consumers are ready to use and what governments are minded to allow.

“Cars require four layers of protection; secure interfaces that connect the vehicle to the external world; secure gateways that provide domain isolation; secure networks that provide secure communication between control units (ECUs); and secure processing units that manage all the features of the connected car. NXP is the leader in these critical areas and looks forward to sharing its expertise and collaborating with our industry partners to shape a secure future for the automated car,” said Lars Reger, CTO of NXP Automotive.

At Mobile World Congress this year, NXP has demonstrated a number of systems dedicated to the practice of ‘platooning‘, where lorries/trucks are able to drive in close proximity to each other due to software-based management layer and a host of embedded chips. A human driver in the front lorry is followed by a number of drivers in driverless cabs who are effectively resting until they take a shift in the front of the line. This could be happening already, but as yet, it isn’t.

System-on-a-Chip for dummies

In terms of product rollout, NXP has this month come forward with a new family of programmable multi-standard System-on-a-Chip products (SoCs) for multi-access technologies including 5G evolution. The company’s Layerscape Access family targets solutions in wired and wireless enterprise and carrier networks and home gateway markets.

As complex as SoC technology sounds, your health tracker wristband or smartphone wouldn’t work without one. Think of it as a full computer, or at least the parts of it needed to perform a specific task. Wearables use SoC technology and smartphones use them too.

In terms of form and function, a SoC would typically be built with some level of microprocessor, memory and input/output function to share the data it tracks – it could also, dependent on its job, feature a sound-detecting receiver, an accelerometer or perhaps some form of gesture recognition technology.

Demonstrating a line of new ‘in ear’ smart earphones (known, cheesily, as ‘hearables’) at Mobile World Congress, NXP explained that devices like these will often have a number of SoCs all working together, but governed and coalesced by a microcontroller. One SoC holds the user’s music tracks (as much as 4GB actually ‘inside’ the earphones) and another SoC is responsible for the gyroscope that also allows these units to act as a step counter.

Suddenly, microcontrollers and how they work to create an operating system level of control inside IoT devices is getting a whole lot more interesting.

In the future, companies like NXP Semiconductors could find themselves working on SoC-driven ‘nanobots’, which we humans ingest. These microscopic robots may work as electronic antibodies to fight of previously incurable diseases. Making these systems fully programmable and easy to connect to suddenly sounds more important.

According to Tareq Bustami, senior vice president and general manager at NXP Semiconductors, “Ultimately, we will enable solution providers to deploy fully programmable systems capable of connecting clients at the speeds they expect over virtually any access technology.”

Intelligent traffic

NXP also produces technology known as Vehicle-to-Infrastructure (V2I) for the growing field of intelligent traffic control. The company says that the marriage of sensing, analysis, control, and communications holds great promise for intelligent transportation systems (ITSs).

According to NXP, intelligent roadside units (RSUs) are most needed where vehicle traffic is highest and leading smart cities around the world will employ them to help smooth traffic flow and increase safety. In the near future, these technologies may not just provide directions for traffic-flow optimization, but also tie in  cloud-based analytics, depending on how much information is held have on individual drivers, to create so-called Vulnerable Road User Warnings (VRUWs). Obviously, there are privacy questions to be asked here, but that’s all part of the learning curve.

MWC#17 updates

NXP also used its appearance at this year’s show to announce that five leading car OEMs will equip future models with NFC devices from NXP. This technology will enable secure interactions between smartphones and smart cars such as complementary car access, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi pairing, personalization and payments.

“Our expertise in NFC, security and automotive has made us the trusted advisor to automotive OEMs on applications that securely connect smart cars and smartphones,” said Rainer Lutz, director new business in secure car access at NXP.

NFC-based smart access doesn’t need cellular service or Wi-Fi to operate, and can still open and start a car even if the battery is dead. Whatever the situation — an underground parking garage, a remote rural area, or in some kind of emergency — the smartkey remains an essential device, providing manual backup for opening and starting the car.

In summary then, NXP appears to be a company behind a good deal of IoT technology about which many drivers are still unaware. Intelligent traffic lights really are coming and they will talk to your car to let you know whether to brake or not.

So many NXP presentations start with “in the very near future”but it’s clear we are about to see a whole lot more of this stuff, these devices, these things.