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What Role Will RFIC Designers Play in the IoT?

A panel of experts from academia and industry assembled at the recent IEEE IMS 2015 to answer critical questions are the role and impact of RFIC technologies.

By John Blyler, Editorial Director

Synopsis of compelling comments:

– “RF engineers will play a role in five out of the top six IoT design challenges.”

– “But not much RF innovation will be required.”

– “It is almost of tautology”

– “I’m a little less optimistic as to how big the role will be.”

– “You just have to be good enough in the RF design.”

A panel of experts was convened at the recent IEEE International Microwave Symposium (IMS) to talk about the role and impact of RF subsystems in the design of emerging IoT devices. Will RF engineers face new challenges? What research opportunities will the IoT create in the RF space? Which of the many competing consortia will eventually dominate the market? Part 1 of this series of reports will focus on the challenges faced by RF engineers. – JB

Panelists (right to left):

  • Ravi Subramanian, GM, Analog/RF/Mixed-Signal, Mentor Graphics, USA
  • Conan Zhan, Deputy Director, RF Division, MediaTek, Taiwan
  • Baher Haroun, Director, Embedded Processing Systems Labs, TI, USA
  • Larry Larson, Dean of Engineering, Brown University, USA
  • Gang Gary Xu, Director, Samsung R&D America, USA
  • Gangadhar Burra, Senior Director of Technology, Qualcomm, USA
  • [Moderator, standing on right] Oren Eliezer, EverSet Technologies & TallannQuest, USA


Oren (Moderator): What role does RF play in the IoT space?

Ravi (Mentor): You cannot spell IoT without RF. Connectivity will be critical and RF will be fundamental to every vertical segment in the IoT space. What changes from vertical to vertical is the nature of that connectivity, bandwidth available, and the type of transmission technology. On one end of the picture you have the five fundamental pieces of the IoT SoC depiction from from Silicon Labs (see Figure 1).


Figure 1: Fundamental pieces of the IoT SoC. (Courtesy of Silicon Labs)

The key innovation in RF will be around high performance, low power signal conditioning and transceiver processing. Briefly, the key areas will see advances in RF transmission/reception technology have to do with how much energy is used to capture, condition and prepare the signal for digital processing. The last five years have seen tremendous advances in how little energy can be used to perform these functions.

Baher (TI): What are the role, impact and segment for RFIC engineers in IoT? There are six challenges that must be addressed:

  • Sensing – Innovative sensing technology is needed.
  • Connectivity – A broad variety of wired or wireless standards are needed.
  • Power – The lowest power solutions for any application are needed.
  • Security – Build-in hardware security technology is a must have.
  • Complexity – IoT solutions need to be for everyone, not just experts.
  • Cloud – An ecosystem of cloud partners is needed to enable integration.

Successful RFIC companies must provide most of the above. RF engineers will play a role in five out of the top six IoT design challenges (san’s the cloud). For example, engineers will need to create RF sensor node platforms and power sensing. Connectivity will come in many forms, from WLAN, BLE , Zigbee and others to Wireless HART, etc. [Editor Note: WirelessHART is a communication technology built on the HART Communication Protocol, an open wireless communication standard for the process industry. (IEC 62591, EN 62591)] On the wired side, industries are moving from wired to hybrid wireless infrastructures and devices.

RF engineers will have to design for very low power as IoT devices will be constrained by energy usage and small form factors. But performance will be needed for high data rate applications for ISM and “ah” standards. [Editor’s Note: IEEE 802.11ah is intended to extend the existing WiFi networks to cover the energy efficient protocols needed for the IoT.] Further, systems must be very robust to interference and attaches which will add more constraints on your RF behavior. Thus they will become more critical. The complexity challenge is really about the robustness of solutions from the baseband to the antenna. Finally, there is the connection to the cloud and the ecosystem of suppliers. 4G and 5G broadband will be used for gateways. But small sensor nodes will be high volume, small size, low cost and low power.

The key impact for the RF portion of the IoT will be reliability, ease of use and low cost. But not much RF innovation will be required. Instead, the innovation must come in energy usage as we are now in a very energy constrained world.

Larry (Brown Univ): Will RF design s have a role in IOT? It is obvious that they will. It is almost of tautology, i.e., of saying of the same thing twice in different words.

Think about the future where every light bulb has a radio in it or every home and automobile containing near one hundred radios. Every one of the radios will be designed by a RF engineer. The opportunities are limitless. It is a very different kind of space than the last 20 -30 years. Energy will be a premium in the IoT space – as was brought up earlier. It is not quiet the same today’s cellular or WiFi space. Data rates (in the IoT arena) will be rather modest by comparison to a lot of the more data oriented applications.

So, we will be living in a different world, an energy constrained world where cost is absolutely the most essential thing and super reliability and data high data rates may take a little bit of a back seat in the design process.

Farshid (Samsung): I think RF engineers will have a role in the IoT but I’m a little less optimistic as to how big the role will be. The main differentiation between the IoT and other types of mainly data driven connectivity is the sensor data. In the IoT, you’ll need very low power and very compact connectivity with low energy. There are already solutions and techniques for lower power, size, etc. So optimization of such (existing) solutions to sensors and applications will be the main effort, rather than starting from scratch.

Figure 2: Ultra-low power will be needed for IoT circuits and ships. (Courtesy of Samsung)

Figure 2: Ultra-low power will be needed for IoT circuits and ships. (Courtesy of Samsung)

The low power techniques will involve playing with voltage, optimizing the cycle of operation to handle asynchronous rather than always on conditions, waking up the sensors when needed, etc. All of these (techniques) are focus on the architecture (see Figure 2). But there is lots of existing low-power RF chips.

Gangadhar (Qualcomm): I’m taking a contrary view to my friend Ravi (from Mentor). He said IoT has RF in it’s spelling but I would say that IoT isn’t dictated by RF subsystems. The RF element just happens to be a commodity element that the IOT needs. You just have to be good enough in the RF design. I’m sorry, but in my judgment that is a fact. The main thing is that you have to have a particular radio that plays nice with it’s billions of neighbors all over the world. But the attraction comes in what you put in the higher layers, in the application space, in the security link, in the way all of these guys seamlessly mesh with one another and play nice. It’s not at the radio but in the upper layers (that add value).

In terms of energy, the energy demand of the radio is not that extreme in terms of its challenges if you … can easily control the proper duty cycling and proper system level design. Low power Internet of Everything (IoE) widgets spend most of their time “sleeping. Further, most radios are designed for “good enough” active and leakage power.

If I may add one last point, I think that the company that can give the widest portfolios of radios and systems including the cellular connectivity to the cloud, will have the ability to do something fairly smart and unique that ties all of this together in the upper layers.

Oren (Moderator): Now it is the audience turns to express their opinion. Please use the clicker to vote on this question: Will IoT keep me busy or maybe even make me rich? (see Figure 3 for the results).

Figure 3: The audience vote revealed that most attendees thought only some “low power RF sensors” will be needed for the IoT.

Figure 3: The audience vote revealed that most attendees thought only some “low power RF sensors” will be needed for the IoT.


Part II of this panel discussion will address the RF research opportunities created by the IoT.

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