FPGA Technology and Software IP in Power Electronics Applications

FPGA-based motor control – A Review of 2011

To begin 2012, let’s recap major events/announcements that have been made in the exciting world of FPGA-based motor control during 2011:

FPGA vendors

In March, Microsemi announced its new Industrial Ecosystem for SmartFusion Intelligent Mixed Signal FPGAs. This ecosystem is intended to specifically address the following markets/applications: Power Metering and Smart Grid, Motor Control (PMSM, BLDC, Stepper), Human-Machine Interfaces, Displays and Field Devices. A week later, Microsemi announced their comprehensive product portfolio for solar power applications which includes computing devices (SmartFusion) but also analog and switching components (IGBT, diodes, etc.) – which is the logic result of the Microsemi’s acquisition of Actel during fall 2010 (on this thread read this). Unfortunately, no news on the announced SmartFusion-based motor control development kit during the year, but those who did attend APEC 2011 at Forth Worth, TX, have had the chance to have a look at Microsemi’s SmartFusion FPGA-based motor control development kit at Alizem‘s booth:

Microsemi's SmartFusion FPGA-based Motor Control development kit

On Xilinx’s side, 2011 has been an important year with the release of their new ARM-based Zynq devices and also the release of a new Xilinx Spartan6 FPGA-based motor control development kit. The big news regarding Xilinx’s Zynq for FPGA-based motor control designers is that it has integrated A2D converters, an element that’s crucial to advanced motor drives systems. Except Microsemi’s SmartFusion, no FPGA vendor had a device with integrated A2Ds and this was certainly one important point missing against conventionnal devices (DSPs & MCUs) which all have integrated A2Ds for control system applications. According to Xilinx, this new Zynq device is going to be in production by the end of 2012 and it is positionned as a device that’s more than a processor, more than an asic and more than an fpga.

On Altera’s side, a new Motor Control development kit has been released during the summer and based on Arrow’s BeMicro low-cost form factor (145$). This platform is intended as an introductory platform for new comers in FPGA-based embedded system design which may then proceed to more advanced system design using already available Arrow’s MotionFire and EBV’s Falcon Eye Altera FPGA-based motor control development kits. Regarding devices, Altera has also made a move toward ARM-based system with their SoC FPGA and released a specific white paper for motor control using SoC FPGA. On a more educationnal side, Altera has released many publications this year intended specifically to FPGA-based motor control system designers such as 4 reasons why FPGA are right for Motor Control.

While we haven’t hear very much about Lattice in motor control / power electronics apps for a while, 2011 has been an exception with the release of a new LatticeECP3 Versa Development Kit in April. This kit is intended to be used in many computing intensive applications including Solar Panel Controllers and Data Acquisition & Control and also Video Transmission and Repeaters, Video Image Signal Processing, Camera Controllers, Network Traffic Management and Resilient Network Construction.

Motor control “apps” / subsystem IP

Over the years, this blog has published some articles explaining why the concept of “Motor Control IP/apps” – as a way to externalize/outsource motor control expertise – is an innovative and interesting option to motor control system designers to achieve their system performance while reducing cost and time to market (read Motor Control IC vs Motor Control IP and Why FPGAs are better than DSPs for Motor Control ?). I did present a synthesis of those ideas as invited speaker at the e-Drive’s Motor, Drive & Automation System conference in San Antonio, TX, in March and the presentation has now been viewed online more than +1300 times. Those ideas are inline with the concept of “Subsystem IP” which is now perceived as a key part in “Imminent EDA Transformation” and the “Core of Modern Semiconductor Design“. The whole idea of an “apps-store” for embedded systems is now taking reality with the recent launch of the ARM/Avnet Embedded Software Store and also the D&R Embedded: this is probably only the beginning. Hence, ideas from only a couple years ago are definitely taking place and are changing ways to approach the difficult task of embedded system design.

What to expect in 2012?

This is always a tricky question to address but if you follow this blog regularly, you can see a momentum building toward greater adoption of FPGAs as electronic system platform for motor drive systems design and “IPs/Apps” as building blocks for motor drive system designers. Having now the major FPGA companies aligned on this market is definitely a good indicator. Regarding this blog, you may expect some change toward more content on the “IPs/Apps” side (i.e. pure motor control algorithms/software) not only oriented toward FPGA, but also toward other electronic devices on the market. More on this later in 2012…

Meanwhile, thanks for your interest and I wish you success in your power electronics system design in 2012 !

FPGA-based motor control – A Review of 2010

This time of the year is a great moment to take a few steps back and observe what the last year has been made of and to speculate on what we can expect in 2011. We already know that 2010 has been a very important year for FPGAs with 47% growth in sales (check Kevin Morris’ recap article ‘Banner Year: 2010 in FPGAs in Review’). With no surprise, 2010 has also been a great year for FPGA-based motor control / power electronics apps, here are the highlights:

FPGA vendors and motor control kits

After Altera released 2 motor control kits in 2008 (Arrow’s MotionFire and EBV’s Falcon Eye), Xilinx and Microsemi have both announced the release of a new FPGA-based motor control kit. Actel/Microsemi did initially demo theirs at ESC in April 2010 while Xilinx have announced their new Targeted Design Platform at SPS/IPC/DRIVES 2010 conference.

At the same conference, Altera has announced new EBV’s three-level inverter demo for motor control and solar power conversion applications. It is interesting to see such demo featuring advanced inverter topologies (i.e. something different than usual two-level inverter) in which FPGA can uniquely differentiate and provide application’s improvement (three-level inverter reduce time-harmonics losses in the converter and the load but require more computation than conventional two-level inverter, more in this article showing 44% power loss reduction in wind power conversion apps).

It is worth mentionning that National Instruments – with their FPGA-based CompactRIO platform – has made noticeable appearance at the EETimes Virtual Conference on Motor Control (having Altera & Texas Instrument as Gold sponsors) with NI’s VP of Industrial and Embedded Product Lines as keynote speaker.

Alizem COTS Motor Control IP

In May 2010, Alizem has released its COTS Motor Control IP for Pump and Fan applications for Altera FPGAs. It is the first application-specific COTS Motor Control IP to be designed and sold as a plug-and-play virtual chip and meant to take advantage of FPGA technical capabilities to increase application performance and to be used by non-motor control and non-FPGA experts (see this blog articles article Motor Control IC vs Motor Control IP and also Why FPGAs are better than DSP for Motor Control ?). This IP has been demoed at ECCE2010 conference and has been the object of an article published by EETimes Programmable Logic Designline.

Some important articles

In August, Motion Control Association published an article of FPGA Motor Control (“Playing the field“) featuring Alizem, Xilinx and National Instruments. A great article on FPGA-based motor control has also been published by Xilinx (“Creating a Greener Future for Industrial Motor Control“) in october.


I think one of the biggest event in 2010 has been one that’s impacting not only Motor Control but any high-level embedded system applications which is the paradigm shift toward “FPGA-as-a-platform”, that is considering the FPGA not as a chip (like a DSP or MCU) both rather as a component (IP) integration platform (like a “software” PCB). Of course, this idea is not new (i.e. that’s not the first year that we are speaking about the concept of system-on-chip), but many important event have happened in 2010 that’s making it a reality.

One of them is Cadence’s EDA 360 manifesto (that’s directed to the whole electronic industry not only FPGA SoC design) which is about “apps-driven” design, i.e. making the application’s requirements at the center of system design instead of the current hardware-first paradigm. Apple’s iPhone has been used by many people in the industry as a concrete example of this new approach to system-level design (Steve Leibson, Daniel Nenni, Kevin Morris, Jim Turley, Brian Bailey and many others).

This shift in design approach is opening a system-level IP/apps era providing new levels of productivity to the system designer (Altera has already upgraded its own tools in that direction with Qsys). That’s exactly what’s needed in complex applications such as motor control where designers are still loosing so much time learning tools and demystiyfing motor control while they could spend this time working on their true product’s differentiation (if you have doubts about this, attend a motor control webinar given by any motor control IC vendor).

Is anything important missing ?

Please let me know. Meanwhile, I wish you success in 2011 in your FPGA-based power electronics applications design ! Thanks for your interest in reading this blog !

MotionFire Motor Control Platform on PowerWise Design TV

To learn more about the MotionFire control platform and general interest regarding FPGA-based motor control, here is an interesting web-TV program presented by National Semiconductor.

This program shows Jeff Wimett, Sr. App. Eng. at Altera, and Steve Herhusky, FAE at Arrow, discussing about advantages brought to motor control system designers by integrating FPGA devices in their medical or industrial applications. Among them is the ‘no-chip obsolescence’ advantage that is particularly interesting for applications that are planned to be operating in the field for at least 15 years and that need to benefit of continuous improvement – from motor control technology but also communication protocols technologies.

Embedded World 2009 : MotionFire & Falcon Eye FPGA-based Motor Control platforms to be demoed

If you plan to attend the next Embedded World conference in Germany, don’t miss the opportunity to take a look at MotionFire and Falcon Eye demos to be respectively presented at Sasco Holz and EBV stands.

A very special and interesting FPGA-based multi-axis motor control demo is going to be shown by EBV with its ‘Man/Women versus Machine’ competition robot football game.

Actel are also going to present a demo based on their Icicle kit which is described as a “miniature motor control and human machine interface“.

See you there !

FPGA-based Field Oriented Current Controller on EBV’s Falcon Eye development board

If you look for some reference design on EBV’s Falcon Eye development board, you can take a look at this very well written and explained article done by researchers at University of Cologne, Germany.

DSPs, MCUs or Mixed Signal FPGAs in motor control?

Here is a good article on the subject from Actel…

While the article provides a general overview of variable-speed motor control drive importance in the industry , it also gives some interesting numbers :

electronic motor control could result in savings of as much as 15% of the total electric power used in the US. This equates to an annual reduction in energy consumption of as much as 300 billion KWh, thereby saving $15 billion and reducing greenhouse gasses by more than 180 million metric tons a year

Later, the author briefly summarize the pitch for FPGA against DSP and MCU by the following :

DSP : “these can be expensive and also typically require the addition of analog components, control elements and sub-systems

MCU : “have the advantage of being relatively cheap (around $1 to $2 for an industrial motor controller application), but they are typically clocked in the range of 10 to 50 MHz, which limits the speed with which they can control the pulse width modulation.

FPGA : “(…) FPGA fabric can be used to implement massively parallel processing of the motor control algorithms. [...] The use of a mixed-signal FPGA with an integrated soft processor allows motors to be built with sensor-less sinusoidal current control, eliminating costly sensors and further reducing the price of the electronic controls. [...] In addition to monitoring the bus voltage, motor currents, and speed, the combination of a Cortex-M1 processor in a mixed-signal FPGA can also perform diagnostics and handle any user interface requirements“.

Can we expect a new release of the Actel-Ishnatek FPGA-based motor control board in a near future ?

Arrow Electronics releases its Motion Fire board in North America with Altera and National Semiconductor

Here’s the press release.

Altera’s CEO speaks on FPGA-based Motor Control for power savings

In a recent article, Altera’s CEO, John Daane, has clearly expressed the idea that FPGA are well positionned to enable “technology which allows people to save energy“.

According to Daane, “66 per cent of the world’s industrial electricity runs motors, but only five per cent use variable speed drivers. FPGAs can be used in most motor controllers because they are programmable”. Those figures are comparable with other well-known published numbers on world’s energy consumption, such as those of IEEE-Fellow Dr. Bimal Bose’s article on the environmental impact of power electronic applications.

This article also reveals the existence of two new Altera FPGA-based Motor Control development platforms : Arrow’s Motion Fire and EBV’s Falcon Eye. Those platforms are meant to design motor controller for industrial applications using PMSM, BLDC or induction motors. Both kits are currently bundled with BLDC motors. You can even get a feeling of the Motion Fire on YouTube.

Those are the first Altera platforms for Motor Control but not the first FPGA-based. There has been Xilinx-IRF Accelerator Platform but we don’t hear about it anymore. The second one has been the Fusion-based Actel-Ishnatek platform who is still available for purchase.

With the recent rise of energy prices and the need for power savings, is this the first sign of a new battle in the motor control field ?