NXP's foray into 'Internet of things' starts with light bulbs

by Junko Yoshida , TechOnline India - May 18, 2011

NXP Semiconductors’ foray into the “Internet of things” will start with IP-based light bulbs, according to Richard Clemmer, CEO of NXP.

NXP Semiconductors’ foray into the “Internet of things” will start with IP-based light bulbs, according to Richard Clemmer, CEO of NXP.

The company is combining its own wireless IP connectivity with newly developed energy-efficient lighting technology.

During an interview with EE Times Monday (May 16th) in New York City, NXP’s CEO demonstrated that lights – both compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) and LED bulbs – are dimmed or brightened, turned on or off –

remotely via smartphone, tablet, PC or TV.

Underlying technology for NXP’s vision of the “Internet of things” includes low power RF and mesh network solutions originally developed by Jennic, a startup NXP bought last July. In wirelessly controlling CFL and LED light bulbs, NXP is using 802.15.4 short-range wireless for communication, the same 2.4 GHz frequency in which ZigBee operates. However, NXP is ditching ZigBees protocols altogether. Instead, it is embracing IP-based protocol stacks – 6lowpan (Ipv6 over Low power Wireless Personal Area Networks).

Breakthroughs behind such a “smart” lighting demo, which NXP is showing this week at Lightfair in Philadelphia, have “two parts,” explained Clemmer.  “They are drivers [for CFL] and communications [for wireless network].”

First, CFL drivers.

At a time when the world’s attention on “green” technology replacing incandescent bulbs is mostly focused on LED bulbs, NXP made a conscience effort to include CFL bulbs in the fold, by developing energy efficient

CFL technology together with TCP, a leading CFL manufacturer. NXP developed CFL drivers that allow effectively noticeable dimmable capability, better quality and color in TCP’s energy efficient CFL bulbs.

TCP’s “TruDim” CFL light bulbs can dim from 100 percent all the way down to 2 percent, a dimmable feature that’s the closet to incandescent lamps, according to TCP. It’s a feat never before accomplished in CFL bulbs.

Second, communication technology.

While using 802.15.4 short-range wireless, NXP emphasized that it is using IP-based protocol stacks. ZigBee’s protocol is not IP-based,” said Clemmer.

More significantly, NXP is turning the API -- originally developed by Jennic – loose in an open source community. Clemmer said NXP hopes to see many developers build new apps on this open-source API, unleashing the “Internet of things,” including machine-to-machine communications in forms that go far beyond lighting. 

Indeed, potential applications for such low-power RF and mesh-network solutions are broad and many.  They include apps like smart metering, tele-healthcare, security cameras, home appliances and the sorts of  “smart” home automation systems many have dreamed of since the Jetsons set up futuristic housekeeping on TV. 

Clearly different from previously much talked about home automation, though, is that NXP’s solutions enabled by Jennic’s underlying technology do not require a whole house to be new rewired or retrofitted. Smart devices, co-existing with dumb devices, can be still controlled.

 

                               

 

Lighting first

Despite all the application potentials for smart connectivity at home, NXP chose lighting controls as the first apps for its wireless communication technology, making IP-based light bulbs the entry point for the brave new world of the “Internet of things.”

Clemmer said, “25 percent of home energy consumption is in lighting.” To make any dent in controlling CO2 emissions, addressing the issue by both energy efficient light bulbs and applying a wireless network to advanced lighting controls is essential, he explained.

For that, NXP is partnering with GreenWave Reality, a company focused on home energy management and automation systems. GreenWave offers an energy management platform, said Greg Memo, GreenWave’s CEO, placing IP in every node ranging from intelligent plugs to smart meters and displays to enable monitoring and control of all devices. In essence, “We translate any protocol into an IP address,” said GreenWave’s Memo.

As GreenWave deals with Z-Wave, ZigBee and now 6LoWPAN, the company’s partnership with NXP is by no means exclusive. However, Memo made it clear that GreenWave prefers NXP’s smart lighting control solutions based on Jennic’s technology. “Lighting control is the most challenging” of all the home automation and smart energy management systems, said Memo.

This is because 20 to 30 percent of lights at home can be switched off, missing from the network. “It needs a mechanism for self healing in the mesh network,” he said. More specifically, it has to make a smart decision to route and send signals from one node to another, and it needs to sense nodes that are dropping out of the network. Moreover, it must reconfigure itself with no latency, so that lights can be physically turned on and off without delay. Jennic-invented technology does all this very well, said Memo.

 

NXP's GreenChip solution

This is because 20 to 30 percent of lights at home can be switched off, missing from the network. “It needs a mechanism for self healing in the mesh network,” he said. More specifically, it has to make a smart decision to route and send signals from one node to another, and it needs to sense nodes that are dropping out of the network. Moreover, it must reconfigure itself with no latency, so that lights can be physically turned on and off without delay. Jennic-invented technology does all this very well, said Memo.

NXP’s smart lighting solution, now called GreenChip, combines wireless IP connectivity with energy-efficient lighting technology. This is an accomplishment, according to John Croteau, senior vice president and general manager at NXP, that required a series of few technological breakthroughs.

First, NXP developed a 2.4-GHz IEEE 802.15.4 standard-compatible wireless microcontroller with a Tx/Rx current “below 17mA.”  

Second, the GreenChip solution uses a 32-bit RISC processor based on OpenRisc, capable of 128-bit AES encryption. Why is such strong encryption needed? To keep your neighbors from controlling your lights or viewing your accounts, for example, said GreenWave’s Memo. Seriously, though, privacy and security are the key concerns for any smart network, and NXP’s GreenChip solution features capabilities for secure authentication and device joining.

Third, Croteau said that NXP developed an ultra-low-power standby supply controller “with 10mW” no-load
capability. NXP explained that standby power is particularly critical in smart lighting applications where lamps are continuously “listening” for the command from the user and/or network.

Fourth, NXP developed the GreenChip iCFL or GreenChip iSSL chipsets, designed to function as highly efficient, dimmable drivers for smart lamps.

In sum, the bill of material for radio controlled CFL lights is “sub $1,” according to Clemmer.

In the company’s drive to grow faster than the overall semiconductor market, NXP has been already driving its RF and high performance mixed signal chips into NFC-based mobile handsets, credit cards, bank cards, transportation cards and others. Taking a page from the NFC playbook, NXP now hopes to build a broader ecosystem around smart lighting, said Clemmer. Other areas NXP is eyeing on for its expansion include
authentication (for counterfeit goods) and smart car keys.

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