Embedded Software IP & Technology Transfer in Power Electronics Applications

FPGA and Embedded Motor Control Software IP – A Review of 2014

iStock_000048509430smallDear reader, thank you for reading my blog. I take this opportunity to wish you an happy new year 2015, fulfilled with great new designs and hopefully as few bugs as possible. Like previous years, I will take some time to review – from my perspective – the last year in the excitating world of electronics innovation (device + software) related to power electronics applications.

2014: The SoC year

For me 2014 has been the “SoC” year with main FPGA manufacturers (i.e. Altera & Xilinx) heavily promoting their new ARM processor centric + FPGA fabric devices (the Cyclone V SoC for Altera and the Zynq for Xilinx). While the idea of having a hard processor connected to a FPGA is not new (Microsemi is doing this since a while with SmartFusion released by Actel in 2009 and Xilinx have had hard PowerPC processors in their Virtex II since 2002), the idea of positionning those devices as “software-centric” is new. What it means is: with those SoC devices (Cyclone V & Zynq), you are not buying a FPGA anymore: you are buying a software programmable chip that has a bunch of peripherals around two ARM processors plus some FPGA fabric. That’s a radical change of mentality from hardware companies that must be applauded. The typical embedded software guy can now program a “FPGA SoC” device without having to deeply know about FPGA first: they can start programming their application software of the ARM processor and then optimize I/Os & some hardware accelerated functions with FPGAs. This is without mentionning that those device now integrate in the large ARM software ecosystem and all synergies that it provides.

How this impacts power electronics apps ? From an system architecture point of view, a power converter (for motor control and solar power conversion) is only another type of peripheral inside a system (just like an audio or a video peripheral). Electronic product devices typically have three interfaces: (1) a human machine-interface (buttons), (2) a communication interface (for external world data exchange / IoT) and (3) a specialized interface (in the case of a surveillance system, that’s a camera in the case of an electric motor drive that’s a power stage). Hence, in my opinion, those SoC devices are going to accelerate a convergence toward standard system architecture that include standard interfaces (for HMI and communication) and specialized interfaces (like camera or power converter). In the example of a smart camera system, you can think to have one processor dedicated to the general management of the application, one processor dedicated to extracting image features coming out of the camera and part of the FPGA fabric dedicated to run the multi-axis smart camera motor controller.

For more reading on the topic, I invite you to read Kevins Morris articles on this topic (this one, this one and this one). Also, don’t miss Adam Taylor’s MicroZed Chronicles: he did an amazing job of releasing ~60 blog articles in the last year on using Xilinx Zynq SoC devices.

Google Little Box Challenge

Last July, Google has launched an amazing power electronics system design challenge called the Little Box Challenge. Basically it means to “figure out how to shrink an inverter down to something smaller than a small laptop (a reduction of > 10× in volume) and smaller than everyone else”. Cash price is 1M$. According to Don Tan – president of the IEEE Power Electronics Society (PELS) – “the inverter will have to have an efficiency greater than 95 percent and handle loads of 2 kVA. It also has to fit in a metal enclosure of no more than 40 cubic inches (655 cubic centimeters) and withstand 100 hours of testing“. This is a great opportunity for  wide bandgap (WBG) semiconductors device manufacturers to show their energy-efficiency benefits and for the best power electronics system designers to show their talent and creativity. The grand prize winner will be announced sometime in January, 2016.

Altera MAX10: Getting some A2D to PLDs

Back to the electronic device world. Last September, Altera has announced the availability of a new type of device: the MAX10. From my understanding, this device positions at the high end of the MAX PLD family and the low-end of the Cyclone family. Hence, this is a very low-cost device (as typical MAX PLD) but has full-featured FPGA capabilities (as Cyclone device) which means that you can embedded a NIOS II soft processor in this device (not possible with previous MAX PLDs). The most important feature – that is especially relevant to power electronics control system design – is that this devices integrates 1 or 2 analog-to-digital (A2D) converter blocks, depending on the device model. In the design of a FOC electric motor drive for example, those A2D can be obviously used to sample phase currents. Typical DSP and MCU have integrated A2Ds and this was missing into the low-cost FPGA space (the notable exception being Microsemi’s mixed-signal FPGAs, but those are not positionned as ‘low-cost’ devices).

Again, you can read Kevin Morris on this topic.

Alizem COTS software for mission-critical motor electric motor drives applications

You know my firm Alizem innovates in the field of power electronics embedded software. The goal being to help system/product designers to spend less time reinventing the wheel and spend more time and money building their true product differenciation by reusing pre-tested software. In 2014, Alizem has released a brand new product meant to reduce energy loss and increase fault robustness of PMSM and BLDC motors. This new product is based on a technology developped over the last 10 years at the Canadian Space Agency. This is a great fit in aerospace applications (i.e. “More Electric Aircraft” technologies) that are always looking for ways to reduce airplane fuel consumption (they can achieve same performance with 20% smaller motors, hence reduced weight, space and fuel). Same logic applies for automotive industry. This is a perfect example of how EDA/IP industry can help OEM to integrate more innovation (value) in their products while reducing developments costs, risks and time-to-market.

My ebook on “How to design a custom electric motor drive system using COTS components ?”

That’s something I wanted to write since a long time because there are a lots of books on the market on the different aspects of electric motor drive design (i.e. electric machine design, power converter design, controller design) but none treating specifically on the embedded software of this application with a practical approach. While it may be improved, I am glad of the result and I invite you to download it for FREE. I would be more than happy to receive your comments about it (send me an email).

This review is for sure incomplete but – in my opinion – it gathers important points of 2014. Please let me know if you think I forgot something important. Again, happy design for 2015!

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