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Prospects for power mgmt in the Internet of Things

18 Dec 2012  | Alix Paultre

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In the realm of digital management and system communications, the electronic power-system industry is in the process of the largest technology integration since the introduction of the linear power supply. Digital power-management techniques have long been a facet of chip design on the client side, where the device controls its internal sub-systems to maximise operating efficiency, and there have been special requirements for the power ICs that drive them. The migration of digital power management from the inside of the box to the outside of the box and the need to communicate with the various systems that inhabit the world outside will create the next level of challenge and opportunity for the industry.

This migration could not have occurred without certain core technologies, both hardware- and software-based. Digital power-management protocols such as PMBus could not move to the board level and provide real value to the designer before the introduction of intermediate-bus architecture to take advantage of the added level of control. Interdevice communications for both power and data would be more difficult without the advances in mixed-bus connector architectures, such as USB and power over Ethernet (PoE), both encouraging and enabling the process.

The external factors involved are based on both reality and desire, and in the area of power design they overlap strongly. Power efficiency translates to thermal efficiency, which aids sleek design, which challenges haptics, which affects board layout, which affects available real estate for the power system and its cooling/shielding requirements. A system that can communicate with its power source can use extended power-management methodologies to raise overall system efficiencies. In the case of batteries and other energy-storage systems, communication also improves device safety and reliability. Market demands put USB connectors on most wall-mount chargers; why not use the bidirectionality of the format?

This pressure to provide functionality, coupled with the availability of advanced power-system methodologies, drives the migration of digital power management to macro systems. A device that can communicate with its wall charger will operate more efficiently than one that cannot; when that wall charger can communicate with the smart-house management system (or at least a smart power meter), the result is not only improved efficiency, but improved functionality and safety as well. This integration provides functionality not only for the user but also for the infrastructure, as it makes the device a part of the Internet of Things and all that it implies.

This ability of the infrastructure to be self-managing at the power level may be intrusive at some levels to some users, but the benefits are myriad. For example, if the power to homes located in hurricane-, tornado-, and flood-evacuation areas could be turned off at the subgrid level, secondary fires would be minimised, and dangers to first responders due to electrocution and water-based secondary electrical damage would be eliminated. The ability to turn off unused (by power signature or device self-reporting) devices in the grid would minimise brownouts and blackouts by reducing "vampire" standby drain.

The advance of cloud-supported, Web-based products increases the need for improved power and signal interdevice communication. As your smartphone takes on more of the role of a personal server, it will be called on to control and manage everything from your belt-mounted artificial pancreas to the speed of your pacemaker while still operating the remote-controlled car you drive around your desktop. Such systems function best when battery states and other operating parameters are part of system management and are accessible through the Web. Your doctor can monitor your medical-device performance, and even in the case of your toy, upgrades to the software and system troubleshooting data can be downloaded to the device.

What this means for you as a designer is that you increasingly will be called upon to ensure your designs function in a larger system infrastructure, and the higher you are able to have your device function in that device architecture, the more you will be able to address the expanded requirements of the Internet of Things. As system architectures and market demands increase the need to exchange data more actively between devices, having the power system participate in the conversation will pay large dividends across the market, from the individual chips inside the device to the power station down the road.

Also watching:

Nanotechnology. Our grasp of what is possible is expanding exponentially, and as a result nanotech is moving from a primarily materials-based technology to a core microdevice and microcomponent electronics and device technology.

Energy harvesting and alternate power methodologies for small devices. "Smart dust" sensor networks, parasitic energy-harvesting sub-systems, and multi-source power systems are all examples of ways power can be harnessed to increase system functionality and performance.

About the author
Alix Paultre is the Director of Marketing and Communications at GlobTek Inc.

To download the PDF version of this article, click here.




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