The internet of things is hitting the top of its hype cycle, but entrepreneurs building hardware are still working in the pre-Industrial era when it comes to building out their electronics. It’s time to introduce some mass-market manufacturing to the process and expand what’s possible.
A new startup called Sunrise Micro Devices hopes to do just that, giving hardware entrepreneurs the type of gear that will help them build out new devices quickly and with longer battery lives.
This five-year-old company in Deerfield Beach, Fla. has designed a low-power radio chip module that will slot into an existing system-on-a-chip, just like Lego bricks slide into each other. The company plans to take a page from ARM, and license this block of IP to all interested parties so the type of integration that has become common on the smartphone front can broaden the opportunity for innovation with the internet of things.
In doing so, Sunrise will solve both a business challenge facing the nascent industry and a technical problem. First, let’s dig into the business model breakthrough, because that has the most potential to change the game.
Don’t build it if you can buy it
There are dozens of new projects on crowdfunding sites each week offering some kind of connected device. From door locks to car seats, everything that can be connected is getting a radio and an app. Many times there are dozens of different connected devices of the same type; plugs, for instance, or light bulbs.
Each entrepreneur with a new vision for home comfort or a toy that could interact with your kid when you’re not there has had to deal with some of the same challenges — finding a way to add intelligence and connectivity in a small device without breaking the bank. I wrote about this issue a few weeks ago after hearing countless hardware innovators complain about the lack of modular components that could be easily integrated onto a custom motherboard.
The radio module from Sunrise can’t solve the entire problem — there are no sensors, nor a microcontroller integrated with the radio IP — but it’s a start, and also a new way of looking at the problem. The Sunrise core will come with Bluetooth certifications and the most up-to-date Bluetooth profile, and is designed to run on the same bus that is shuttling information around on today’s chips.
The idea is that vendors large and small will now be able to integrate a low-power radio much like they would an ARM core today, allowing them to avoid having to write low-level software for the radios. It also means you don’t need a radio engineer on staff to reinvent the wheel for each iteration of the product.
The ARM stamp of approval
Led by Fred Martin — co-founder, president and CEO of Sunrise — the company isn’t just taking inspiration from the ARM model, it is taking money from the company in the form of a strategic investment. While the amount is undisclosed, two ARM employees (including David Flynn, an ARM Fellow) are now working at Sunrise helping get the company from conception to a physical device. Bob Morris, the VP of Marketing at Sunrise and the other borrowed ARM employee, explains that the idea is to help drive connectivity into even more places. He likens ARM’s support of Sunrise to what the chip licensing firm did with Luminary Micro, an ARM-sponsored startup that created microcontrollers, and was eventually bought by Texas Instruments.
And part of driving connectivity into more places will be making radios that consume very little power, so they don’t need big batteries or perhaps any batteries. Right now many wearables are powered by a three-volt coin-cell battery, but Sunrise wants to make do with one volt. That means devices using its radio on a three-volt battery would last twice as long, but also that wearables could take advantage of breakthroughs and existing energy harvesting technologies to operating without a battery in some cases.
Good for ARM, great for wearables
These “appcessories” could then be embedded into clothing, jewelry, household goods and buildings without needing much care and feeding from the owner. They’d also be cheaper. The reduction in power consumption is something Sunrise employees have been working on for decades as radio engineers at companies including Motorola. The energy breakthrough here is related to the power management and how the radio uses the voltage available to it.
Sunrise plans to tape out its first chip in August and is in talks with several companies to build its technology into their products. If the earliest adopters decide to use the Sunrise core, we’d see products as soon as the middle of next year that take advantage of this low-power, modular radio. The first module will be for a Bluetooth 4.1 radio.
This may sound wonky, but this is a real problem for hardware entrepreneurs, and much like ARMs business model has helped drive a proliferation of cheap and powerful mobile devices, Sunrise could drive a similar proliferation of connectivity into new objects.
It has the business model right, so now we will just have to see if chipmakers and device companies buy into it. And we’ll have to see if the radio can deliver on its low-power promise.
Updated: This story was updated at 7 am PT to remove references to FCC certification. The module will not be pre-certified with the FCC.