One of the toughest challenges of IoT design may be the task of fitting all of the necessary components into the smallest area possible. These may include a battery, processors, RF transceivers, security ICs, GNSS ICs, and necessary sensors.
At the same time, designers must also consider device security, considering the inherent security threats associated with cloud computing and on-device processing alike.
Layers of an IoT device. Image used courtesy of Aksu et al.
u-blox, a Swiss wireless semiconductor company, has recently announced a new system-in-a-package (SiP) claimed to address both size and security design challenges. We had the opportunity to sit down with Samuele Falcomer, Senior Product Manager at u-blox, to hear about the news from the source.
The First SiP to Combine 5G and GNSS in One Package
u-blox’s newest product, ALEX-R5, is a wireless IC that integrates both 5G cellular connectivity and Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) capabilities into a 14 mm x 14 mm x 1.5 mm package. This footprint is half the size of previous u-blox devices of similar capabilities.
Falcomer explains that u-blox chip designers were able to shrink the area of the ALEX-R5 because of the system in package (SiP) house it’s built into. He says, “ALEX-R5 is a SiP, and this is key… It’s completely different from standard products you see out there, and thanks to the molding and all the other special processing, we have been able to massively reduce the size of the product.”
ALEX-R5 comes in a 14 mm x 14 mm package. Image used courtesy of u-blox
A SiP not only saves board space (as opposed to two separate chips for each function); it also provides the engineer with flexibility. “[Our customers] can decide to use LTE, they can decide to use GNSS, or they can decide to use them both in parallel at the same time,” he says. “We are the only one in the market able to provide this concurrent operation.”
The ALEX-R5 includes a nominal power supply of 3.8 V (the range being between 3.0 V to 4.5 V) and a power-saving mode (PSM) current consumption 0.5 µA.
In PSM, a module including ALEX-R5 caps current consumption at 500 nA. Image used courtesy of u-blox
Use Cases of the ALEX-R5
Despite its small size, u-blox asserts that ALEX-R5 is well-suited for battery-based or power-sensitive applications because of the various low power modes of the two integrated chipsets: UBX-R5 and UBX-M8.
One of the modes dubbed GNSS Super-E (“Super Efficient”) mode is said to use the least number of resources to track and maintain an accurate position. The only exception is when few satellites are in view or when signals lag—at which point, the mode switches to a full-power scheme to ascertain an accurate position.
Super-E mode compared to full power mode. Image used courtesy of u-blox
u-blox envisions the ALEX-R5 finding a home in small wearable devices—medical devices, asset trackers, animal location devices, and the like. Keeping in mind the rugged environments wearables may encounter, u-blox also ensured that ALEX-R5 is resilient against moisture (rated at moisture sensitive level 3, in fact) and vibration.
Because wearables move in and out of areas with adequate connectivity, the SiP also includes a 23 dBm cellular transmission. This means that despite signal conditions, the device can operate effectively. The dedicated GNSS antenna operating alongside the independent M8 GNSS chip also allows the SiP to operate at the same level of performance of—for instance—a u-blox M8 module.
What Is “IoT Security-as-a-Service?”
u-blox reports that there are 5,200 attacks on IoT devices a month—an attack attempt occurring every 39 seconds.
In light of these statistics and recent supply-chain attacks making headlines, security is also a key feature in this device. For starters, the new ALEX-R5 is built with the same technologies that underlie u-blox’s SARA-R5—an honoree for CES 2021’s innovation award for cybersecurity and personal privacy.
One of the stand-out features highlighted at CES for the SARA-R5—and the ALEX-R5 by extension—is u-blox’s “IoT security-as-a-service,” a “lightweight pre-shared key management system” that aims to guard the LPWA device itself and data transmitted to the cloud.
The four pillars of u-blox’s IoT security-as-a-service portfolio. Image used courtesy of u-blox
In addition to local data protection and chip-to-chip security, the ALEX-R5 is outfitted with an EAL5+ high-certified root of trust, secure boot, and anti-cloning detection and rejection. It also features end-to-end symmetric key management system (KMS) and end-to-end data protection while also offering zero-touch provisioning for AWS and Azure.
Another way the company sidetracks security concerns, specifically within the supply chain, is by creating all hardware and software entirely in house. The company has complete ownership of the product, sidestepping concerns about malicious third-party hardware or software interference while also easing concerns about long-term availability.
A Chip Worthwhile for IoT Design Flexibility?
It seems that u-blox is striving to address as many IoT design challenges as possible with its latest SiP, claimed to be the first device to integrate both 5G cellular connectivity and GNSS functionality. Centered around area and security, the new ALEX-R5 may be a solution worth consideration when design engineers are looking for flexibility in IoT—and specifically LPWA—devices.