FPGA Technology and Software IP in Power Electronics Applications

Impacts of an embedded software bug in power electronics applications

We all know software is a difficult skill to master and there are tremendous differences in developping software for:

  • PC/desktop applications
  • mobile/tablet applications
  • … and real-time embedded control applications such as power electronics applications

While in all cases a software bug may lead to important financial and human losses (directly or indirectly), the case of embedded software for power electronics application is special since it is meant to directly control the flow of energy from a source (battery, solar, etc.) to a load (electric motor, power network, etc.), not a flow of informations/signals/data is in a typical software application.

Impact #1: System component destruction

It means that a software bug may lead in the bad management of the flow of energy which can itself cause the destruction of components such as power stage (“shoot-through” faults), electric motor (“overcurrent” faults) or electric motor load (pump damage caused by cavitation for example).

impact of a bug power electronics software

Of course, proper installation of electrical equipement protection (i.e. fuses) can prevent most of the damage that may happen on the system components in case of a bug (overcurrent), but not all of them. For example, noise in a transducer may lead to torque ripple which may lead over time into electric motor bearing problems. This is the whole idea of electric motor “condition monitoring”, i.e. tracking over time the state of healt of the motor in order to : (1) detect faults (is there a fault, what component ?) and (2) diagnose faults (what is the cause of the fault, how severe the fault is). Those further interested in the subject may read this article.

Impact #2: Unique embedded motor control software development process

Hence, the development of motor control software needs not only software programming and digital signal processing skills, but it also needs deep “domain knowledge” experience related to power electronics, electric motors, transducers and the type of application where the software is going to run (in a home appliance or in an electric vehicle ?). More on this in a previous blog article. This point is not unique to power electronics software, the same could be same for embedded computer vision software (i.e. smart camera).

However, since motor control software bug may lead to component destruction, this has an impact on how the motor control software development and testing process is going to be made. Blowing a power stage is expensive and takes time to repair : it means you cannot afford to simply “develop some code and test” just like you would while developping a PC/mobile software application. It means you need to be sure that when you are going to turn the power switch on, you are not going to destroy your system.

How can you do that ? Well, you know my pitch on this.

The Virtualization of Embedded Computing

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In September 2011, I have been contacted by CATA‘s Jean-Guy Rens who was doing a study regarding the embedded systems industry in Canada titled “The Other Computing : Is Canada ready for the Internet of Things ?“. You can freely access his full study here.

We had an interview together to get my insights regarding future development of this industry. He finally decided to place this interview as the foreword of his study and called it “The Virtualization of Embedded Computing”. Here are some parts of this interview :

Being fluent in embedded software engineering is not enough

“Embedded systems are a horizontal technology, but their applications scopes are vertical. Many people are studying the embedded system itself, but the real challenge is to apply this knowledge to vertical applications. That is why I introduce myself as a software engineer who migrated to energy applications. I speak both “electric motor” and “embedded software”. Too often, electric motors specialists are not knowledgeable about embedded software and vice versa. Alizem’s expertise is to translate the needs of electric motor-based system designers into embedded software solutions. It is not sufficient to be an expert in C programming to be able to design an application that will fully satisfy a particular need. Too often, developers think they are able to create all purpose applications. That’s why the cost of embedded systems software development is skyrocketing. For my part I tend to consider that software programming is an engineering core skill. It’s like reading and writing: it is not because someone can write that he is equally capable of writing novels, political speeches and pamphlets for department stores. For an engineer, the challenge is to design solutions that encapsulate application knowledge (complex, rare and expensive to develop), within a short time to market, but without compromising product quality and performance. The technology of embedded systems is known and accessible to all. The challenge is to quickly and efficiently integrate modules that work first time around.”

Software now comes first, electronics second

“It is possible to compare the embedded system to a home. For centuries, it is the people who were makers of brick and cement that built the houses. The design, modeling and decoration of the house came as an afterthought. This process has changed beyond recognition when we started asking architects to make plans for our houses – or to program them virtually, if we are to continue our analogy. Even decorators – more often referred to as interior designers – are consulted from the start of the house project. It is they who define the plans of the house – the contractor comes later, to handle the actual construction.  Everything happens exactly the same way in the embedded world. The engineer in microelectronics is the contractor with the bricks and mortar. If a microelectronics firm persists in programming an embedded system application from ‘a’ to ‘z’, it behaves like the ancient contractor who made himself the bricks with which he built a house, then would seek the aggregate of the mortar on the side of the river and so on. Such behavior was probably justified for the early embedded systems when devices had limited computing power and range of applications. Developers who all belonged to the world of electrical engineering approached their various projects from a hardware perspective: they had to practically invent their work tools as well as the final product. The rudimentary software used, a few hundred lines of code, was a detail they did not care about too much. But times have changed and electronics has become a commodity: the bulk of the value is migrating towards the software side. Today, embedded systems are software-driven. It is up to the software engineer to be both the architect and the decorator – he is the natural project manager. This role reversal is hard to accept by traditional electronic engineers. The result is a culture shock.”

 

FPGA-based Motor Control and Embedded Motor Control Software IP – A review of 2013

Time passes and it is now the moment to make a short review of what happenned, in my opinion, in the world of FPGA-based Motor Control and Embedded Motor Control software IP in 2013:

New FPGA evaluation kits

Lattice has started the year with the release of its new iCE40 LP384 development kit. While not being explicitely targeted for motor control but controllers in general, this FPGA is small and very low cost: less than 50 cents per unit in multi-million unit quantities.  Even the evalutation kit is very low cost: both iCEblink40-HX1K Evaluation Kit and iCEblink40-LP1K Evaluation Kit are sold for 34.12$. Of course, those kits do not include any power stage, motor or transducers: you need to have your own.

A month later, Altera has annouced the release of its new Cyclone V SoC development kit. Built around a 800 MHz dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 processor and provided with all interfaces needed for maximum connectivity, this new device is clearly positionned in the same segment than Xilinx’s Zynq device (also built around ARM Cortex A9 dual-core processor) previously released in 2012. This kit interfaces with the FalconEye 2.0 motor control board.

Embedded Motor Control Software IP

In February, Texas Instrument (TI) has announced the release of their new INSTASpin-FOC sensorless motor control software. The pitch is “Identify, tune and fully control your motor in less than 5 minutes and eliminate the need for a mechanical rotor sensor” and meant to be used on TO C2000 Piccolo microcontrollers. According to TI, this helps saving months of design time which is inline with a topic previously addressed on this blog. To my knowledge, TI is currently the only motor control chip manufacturer offering such advanced motor control design tool. Note that this tool is meant to be used in sensorless applications, i.e. applications where near zero speed performance is not a requirement.

In October, my company Alizem has announced that our previously released Motor Control Software IP for Servo-Drives applications has reached a new level of performance on 100kW motors which has led into a licensing agreement with a major industrial OEM. At the same time, we have announced the signature of an agreement with the Canadian Space Agency regarding new motor control software technologies (stay tuned for the release shortly).

DesignNews Webinar

In May, I have had the pleasure of being invited to participate in a Webinar on the specific topic of FPGA-based motor control and sponsored by Altera.  The discussion has been held around the following questions:

• What are the typical steps and challenges faced by system designers when designing motion controllers?
• From a motion control design point of view, how do FPGA/SoC devices and design flows compares to other devices?
• Communication networks are clearly critical: What are some of the challenges of Industrial Ethernet?
• What design tools and flows are needed to maximize system designer productivity?
• What is needed from device providers to enable designers to go further in their product innovation?
• What factors can reduce the overall cost of ownership of motion control development platforms?
The webinar is still available for off-line consultation if you are interested.

 

Is there anything else missing ? If you think yes, please let me know ! You can also contact me on any topic you would like me to address. Thanks for reading my blog!

ISIE 2014 – Special Session on “Industrial Applications of FPGAs and Embedded Systems”

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 ISIE 2014 – IEEE International Symposium on Industrial Electronics

June 1-4, 2014, Istanbul, Turkey

Website: http://www.isie.boun.edu.tr

Call for papers: Special Session on Industrial Applications of FPGAs & Embedded Systems

The Special Session seeks papers describing original research or application aspects of FPGAs and Embedded Systems in the area of industrial electronics. Topics of interest include, but are not limited to:

– Design and test/debug methodologies for ES/SoC
– Architectures for ES
– Reconfigurable platforms
– Embedded software development
– Formal methods and ES design
– Industrial experiences
– Case studies

All the instructions for paper submission are included at the conference website: http://www.isie.boun.edu.tr/

Submission deadline (extended): 30 December 2013
It is possible to accommodate an extension of some extra days if authors contact organizers in advance. Special Session Organizers:

Luis Gomes (lugo@fct.unl.pt)
Juan J. Rodriguez-Andina (jjrdguez@uvigo.es)

FPGA-based Motor Control: “The Brains behind the Motion Controller” Webinar

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I will be giving a webinar on the topic of FPGA-based Motor Control on May 30th 2013. Make sure to register by click this link.

Meanwhile, if you have any particular question you would like to be addressed during the Q&A session, feel free to contact me.

I look forward to talk with you on May 30th !

NOTE (June 3rd 2013): You can now here the webinar archive by clicking here.

FPGA-based Motor Control and Motor Control Software IP – A review of 2012

Here is my review of the main events that have happened in 2012 in the world of FPGA-based motor control and Motor Control Software IP.

A new kit from Microsemi and Trinamic

In February, Microsemi and Trinamic did release their new Motor Control Software development kit. This new kit combines three features crucial for successful implementation of complex motor control algorithms: an embedded microcontroller, programmable analog fabric, and programmable digital (FPGA) fabric. This kit is built around Microsemi’s SmartFusion chip and embedded ARM Cortex M-3 processor. It is bundled with stepper motor and BLDC motor. Here’s the video that’s been presented at DesignWest 2012. Of course, one key feature of Microsemi is their analog part that can be used for motor sensing leading to reductions of  overall system complexity and operational costs.

Microsemi did also release its new SmartFusion2 in october mentionning they are already have engagement from customer building critical systems in a broad range of applications including flight data recorders, weapons systems, defibrillators, handheld radios, communications management systems and industrial motor control.

On Altera, Xilinx and Lattice side

No new kit have been released from Xilinx and Altera this year, only one from Lattice. Actually, this kit is not intended for “motor control” specifically but rather for “complex system control” in general and also “video interface design”. According to the previous article, the kit offers a wealth of other built-in system resources that engineers can use to build realistic system prototypes with both digital and analog control‚ human interfaces (electret microphone‚ speaker/headphone‚ LED) and a wide variety of interfaces to external devices and systems (USB 2.0‚ microSD‚ GPIO).

In October, Xilinx did release a new PWM IP that specically releverage FPGA properties to reduce the level of noise compared to standard PWM. This is particularly refreshing to see this since advanced PWM is certainly a domain where FPGA can have and advantage compared to more conventionnal devices since it involves complex calculations at high speed. This is something I did mention in my “Electric motor power savings: The true impact of the device selection” post.

Altera did release its new framework in November 2012 at SPS/IPS Drives conference that is a design environment that help motor control system designer to leverage the different Altera EDA tools in its FPGA-based motor control design process. This framework contains a “drive-on-a-chip” reference design that can be used with the EBV kit or the INK kit.

 

New Motor Control IP for Altera FPGAs from Alizem

After having released its new on-line boutique in October, Alizem did release its new off-the-shelf motor control software IP for Altera FPGAs. This new software has been tested on real motors from 30W to 86kW and includes many debugging functions for the power stage, the transducers and system protection that helps the motor control system designer in developping new systems safer, cheaper and faster. This new motor control software IP has received AMPP certification in december.

This product is completely in-line with my presentation at IECON2012 on the topic of “FPGA-based Custom Motor Drives Design: The Role of 3rd-party System-Level IP“.

What to expect in 2013 ?

With increased market pressure for lower costs and more innovations, the field of custom motor drives is expected to be more in demand in 2013 and the coming years. According to this market reserach, custom design and manufacturing of an inverter’s sub-unit is driving the modular approach accross applications. According to the same study, major changes are happenning accross the supply chain because power electronics often requires having several types of knowledge and experience gained know-how in mechanics, electronics, semiconductors, electrics, fluidics and hydraulics, and connectors and its development can be complicated and final products expensive.

 Is there anything missing ?

Please let me know by sending me a message via Twitter. You can also contact me on any question you would like me to address on the field of FPGA-based motor control and motor control software IP.

Thanks for reading my blog, I hope you find it useful.

IP for FPGAs: What Does the Future Hold?

Warren Miller has recently posted a series of articles on All Programmable Planet website titled “IP for FPGAs: What Does the Future Hold ?”. I took time to add my two-cents in the conversation:

“Hi Warren and congrats for this excellent series of post.

I completely agree with the idea of having IP blocks that include not only the desired function, but also a bundle of verification functions that help designers to reach their ultimate goal: having a fully working system on time and within budget.

In my area of expertise – motor control software IP – this is particularly important since the application is the management of energy and if an error occurs, this can lead to important system damage (i.e. burn a motor / power stage). Not just a simple “system reboot”.

However, the design of such verification function is a field of expertise in itself that’s entirely related to the expertise domain (i.e. motor control, this is true also for other complex applications such as image processing). Also, the translation of those functions into a form that’s usable by a third-party (which can be internal or external) has also a cost (testing, documentation, etc.).

This is true for DSP/MCU-based design which are only SW configurable devices. Hence, for FPGA-based designs, which have an order of complexity higher than DSP/MCU based design (because of the programmability of the HW), it is obvious that it is also true.

I think the fullfillement of those needs belong to 3rd party system-level IP providers (such as Alizem in the field of motor control), i.e. who package their domain expertise in the form of a licensable IP products.

This is exactly the topic I have presented last month at the IEEE Industrial Electronics Society (IES) Annual meeting for which I have been invited speaker of the Industry Forum. You can access my presentation on my blog:

FPGA-based Custom Motor Drives Design: The Role of 3rd-party System-Level IP

The conclusion of this presentation is: the role of 3rd-party system-level IP providers is to provide products that makes it so easy to the system designers that they can bring their own system to the next level (i.e. focus on their true product differentiation).

Just like Google did with its “self-driving” car.

Best Regards, Marc.”

FPGA-based Custom Motor Drives Design: The Role of 3rd-party System-Level IP

For those who didn’t have the chance to be at the annual IEEE Industrial Electronics Conference (IECON) 2012 conference in Montréal, Qc last week, you may have a look at the slides of my presentation :

I take this opportunity to thank the organizers of the Industry Forum – Michael Condry and Richard Grisel  – for their kind invitation to participate at this conference.

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 Controllers – IEEE Industrial Electronics Mazagine March 2011

Another great ‘survey’ article has been written by Dr. Éric Monmasson and his team and published in the IEEE Industrial Electronics Magazine of March 2011 and titled ‘FPGA-based Controllers – Different Perspectives of Power Electronics and Drives Applications’. Here’s the abstract of their article:

This article presents the benefits of using field-programmable gate array (FPGA)-based controllers for power electronics and drive applications. For this purpose, an algorithm perspective is first proposed, where it is stated that, depending on the intrinsic parallelism properties as well as level of complexity, it makes sense to implement each control algorithm on a specific hardware and/or software architecture to get the best performances in terms of execution time or the best ratio performance versus cost. Then, an application perspective is proposed where the constraints specifically linked to the control of power converters are discussed.

You may access it here on the IEEE Xplore.