Complexity of design and the need to shield developers from time-consuming low-level detail is leading to new generations of development platforms that bring together hardware and software and provide quicker access to adding unique application value.
by Tom Williams, Editor-in-Chief
Abstraction is the tool the human mind uses to deal with increasing complexity. We have certainly seen this tool at work in technology and in embedded development over the years. A simple example is the board support package—a set of pre-installed software components such as RTOS, hardware abstraction layer and drivers that help a developer get started adding value at a level that does not require excruciating detailed work simply to get started. With the increasing pervasiveness and complexity of embedded systems, most of which are now connected to the Internet of Things, the days when we could make do with a board support package are long gone.
In order to continue progress in systems development, we are now in the era of the “platform.” And the mere word platform really does not do justice to what is now contained in that concept. The recent Renesas DevCon held in Anaheim, CA, revealed what the future holds for development with a range of development platforms making up its Synergy family and also including an entire running automobile designed to serve as a development platform for engineers to created external sensor systems, motor control, infotainment, body control systems and ranging up to the ambitious goal of the autonomous vehicle.
The Renesas Synergy platform is still evolving but has reached a stage of completion that is already yielding successful designs. Developers faced with selecting, qualifying, integrating and verifying a range of different hardware and software components—some open source and others from a variety of different vendors—has always been a time-consuming and involved process that designers have had to go through before they can even start thinking about the true added value of the application they are trying to build. One thing that this new generation of platforms must provide is a single “buck stops here” vendor who stands behind the integration of the different components in the platform and who is the single source of technical support for all aspects of it. This is the message that Renesas is sending with regard to Synergy.
Make no mistake. Renesas is in its core nature a silicon manufacturer. But the amount of software support and integration needed to make those silicon products attractive is to a great extent based on the user’s recognition that he can select those basic core processors and MCUs and know that they come with a hardware and software infrastructure that can speed time to market, help with needed certifications, offer confidence in licensing, provide a strong tool environment and much more. It is a game that only a few major manufacturers will be able to play successfully.
Renesas Synergy starts off with a selection of ARM-based microcontrollers that fall into four classes: S1, S3, S5 and S7 and into the four clock frequency ranges shown in Figure 1. The S1 series is optimized for ultra-low power with active power consumption of 77uA per MHz and the S1 MCUs use a Cortex-M0+ CPU core. The S3, S5 and S7 MCUs use Cortex-M4 cores with increasing complements of on-chip Flash and increasing clock frequencies and power consumption—up to 4MB in the S7.
The MCUs are also built such that the on-chip peripherals in the S1 and S3 classes, for example are compatible with the S3 having additional features. Likewise for the S5 and S7 devices so that software can be ported to the higher class with little modification and then adapted to the enhanced available features. In addition, care has been taken to preserve pin compatibility to the extent possible when scaling up. Even when moving from 100 to 144 pins, the power and ground pins are compatible minimizing board rework.
The MCUs, of course, only provide the foundation for the platform. The rest of the structure is built of software. This Renesas Synergy Software Package (SSP) includes quite a bit because the complexity of hardware and the functions now demanded of embedded systems have grown tremendously. Renesas has partnered with Express Logic to integrate not only that company’s ThreadX RTOS but also its Filex file system and NETX TCPIP stack, its GUIX GUI toolkit, its USBX host/device USB embedded stack. The SSP also includes an application framework with functional code for such things as audio, SPI and touch sensing along with functional libraries.
Beyond that are sets of hardware abstraction layer drivers and even direct access to MCU registers so that developers can access these lower-level hardware functions if needed. They are not shut out from that but are provided with an API layer that allows access to all these levels of the platform from the developer’s application code because these components are integrated to the RTOS to manage conflicts and to arbitrate among multiple threads. Mostly, access will be to the SSP and functional libraries where much of the low-level detail has already been solved and verified. In addition there is provision for the inclusion of qualified and/or verified software add-ons. Qualified software is selected, serviced and maintained by Renesas while verified third-party software goes through a rigorous documentation and verification process in order to be included and supported as a part of Synergy.
Renesas provides its e2studio toolkit, which includes a ThreadX debugger, Smart Manual, compiler and configuration tools. In addition, IAR Systems has partnered with Renesas to mate its Embedded Workbench development tools to Synergy, bringing a complete embedded development platform with editor, project manager, compiler, liker, assembler, etc. We can expect to see this level of platform concept start to appear in other areas due to the need for pre-integration and abstraction in so many areas of embedded development.
The Platform on the Road
And surprise, surprise—a development platform has recently appeared in the form of a complete drivable automobile. The Renesas Syline Fleet in cooperation with Harbrick’s Polysynch robotics software is a complete modified Cadillac with built-in sensors and a host of control units and built-in development boards (Figure 3). Among these are the H2 development boards that support the Renesas R-Car processors, which is a family of ARM-based processors. The first generation is based on the quad-core Cortex-A9 and the second generation on the quad-core Cortex-A15. These are SoCs with other processor cores and functions such as HD video integrated on-chip.
The Renesas Skyline Fleet offers a complete platform with sensors, processors and software for high-level development of a host of automotive applications up to the autonomous vehicle.
The car includes built-in long and short range RADAR along with LIDAR sensors, GPS and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2X) radio. In addition a wide number of other microcontrollers including the RH850 for things like power train, instrumentation and safety and the RL78 for body control (e.g., windows, wipers, etc.) are distributed. The car is not meant as a demos system but as a development platform. For example, the dashboard display brings in signals from RADAR, LIDAR, camera and other sensors but in the raw product, they just show up as signals on the display. It is up to the developer to design the visual character of how that data will be presented. Presumably, a developer could even decide to bring in a display or dashboard system from another vendor to customize a design.
The Skyline Fleet is aimed at a range of development choices from driver assistance systems on up to developing a fully autonomous vehicle. To that end the V2X radio will also be important since autonomous vehicles will need to interact with elements of the road and traffic infrastructure as well as with other vehicles. For example, even now stoplights are gaining intelligence such as the ability to sense the number of cars waiting at a stop and adjust their timing to the current conditions. Now such lights can be fitted with transmitters to signal approaching cars they are about to change and initiate braking automatically.
Obviously, the subject of intelligent and autonomous vehicles involves much more than just the design of electronics inside the car. It must tailor those electronics to the overall driver experience based on style, the interior, driving feel and more. It must also bring in infotainment, driver distraction, Internet connection and other communication issues with the surroundings. The fact that in this area, a “platform” is based on a whole automobile—and even includes test tracks such as the 33-acre outdoor lab at the University of Michigan—speaks to the enormity of the task and the need for high levels of abstraction and of real-world interaction.
Renesas Electronics America
Santa Clara, CA