20-10-2020 | | By Robin Mitchell
Nordic Semiconductor has announced that they will soon be shipping their 1 billionth ARM-Cortex based wireless SoC. What are SoCs, what is the nRF51, and how has the development of SoCs changed the electronics industry?
The term SoC is an acronym that stands for System on Chip. In the past, most circuits were constructed from individual building blocks (such as resistors, capacitors, and transistors), which would be placed onto a PCB. The introduction of the integrated circuit saw many common building blocks, such as logic gates and op-amps, replaced with integrated circuit equivalents, and the result was smaller, faster, and cheaper electronics.
As semiconductor technology improved, so did the number of devices that could fit onto a single chip, and eventually, this led to the creation of the first SoCs, or System of Chip. These devices combine the majority of needed hardware for a system to function onto a single semiconductor device. For example, the first Raspberry Pi incorporates the Broadcom BCM2835 which integrates the CPU, GPU, and many peripherals which would normally be separate.
The nRF51 is the product name for a family of different low-power wireless SoCs developed by Nordic Semiconductor. These SoCs integrate all the needed components to create a functioning wireless system, including an ARM microcontroller, GPIO, power management, DMA, and radio transceiver. Different devices of the nRF51 family support different low-power wireless communication protocols, including Bluetooth Low Energy, ANT, ANT+, and other 2.4GHz proprietary protocols.
The processor that drives the nRF51 family is the ARM Cortex-M0 which is one of the smallest ARM processors currently available. Its small size makes it an ideal candidate for SoC applications where space is restricted, and its small size also helps to reduce its overall energy consumption. The 32-bit processor includes nested vectored interrupt controls, wake-up interrupts multiple peripherals and is supported by a wide range of tools and programming platforms.
The ability for the nRF51 to be used in a wide range of applications has seen the 1 billionth wireless SoC based on the ARM core shipped. Developed back in 2012, the nRF51 was the low-energy wireless family that showed the industry how IoT and other internet-enabled designs no longer required to be made from multiple parts including a host microcontroller and Wi-Fi / wireless bridge. Instead, a singular Wi-Fi device can be developed on a single chip, utilising common tools and libraries to allow for quick prototyping and manufacture of an IoT. Since the first nRF51 devices, other families have emerged, including the nRF52 and nRF53, which provide more powerful processors, larger FLASH and RAM sizes, and lower energy consumption.
“Nordic Semiconductor expanded the application-range of Bluetooth by abstracting away from the designer all unnecessary technical complexity. And the pre-certified, ready-to-drop-in LTE-M/NB-IoT nRF91 SiP promises to do the same for cellular IoT. An extremely important part of us achieving that is our on-going, long-term partnership with Arm.” - Svenn-Tore Larsen / Nordic CEO
The reliability and effectiveness of the ARM processor have seen Nordic Semiconductor integrate an ARM core into their latest range of wireless SoC devices, the nRF91, which are designed to work with multi-protocol cellular systems such as LTE-M and NB-IoT. Like its predecessors, the nRF91 is smaller, lower power, and secure than others and will be targeting the latest IoT cellular solutions.