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Electric vehicles that power your home through two-way chargers. Smart meters that help you lower your water bill. Wireless sensors that detect a faulty transformer long before it turns out your lights.
The future of America’s power grid looks bright: fewer outages, better efficiency and more renewable energy sources that enable intelligent distribution. Across the country, states and utility companies are slowly transforming our outdated electromechanical infrastructure into a system that’s automated, smarter and more dynamic.
“Gone are the days when you run long cables to monitor grid assets, including the transmission-and-distribution network and the switching gear in a substation that collects and analyzes power data,” said Amit Kumbasi, a systems and marketing manager from our company. “Today, there’s a push toward digitizing the grid with multiple miniature sensors consuming ultra-low power and providing a secure wireless network that can relay real-time, on-demand data for asset monitoring, intelligent distribution and better resiliency.”
Learn more about grid automation by reading our white paper, “Modernizing the grid through dynamic technology.”
Small sensors, big data
It’s a familiar, frustrating problem: the power goes out in your home because an aging transformer somewhere in the electric grid fails. Fault detection, isolation and restoration could take hours to find and fix faulty equipment. But in an automated grid, the agility and speed of identification and precautionary steps is more instant due to access to data-on-demand. Today, a wireless sensor could detect months ahead of time that a transformer is operating at a higher-than-normal temperature – and it can be replaced long before your home goes dark.
The sensors can transmit information through Sub-1 GHz connectivity when data has to be transmitted over a long range with ultra-low power for substation and distribution automation. Sub-1 GHz is also useful when multiple sensors need to transmit data to a single data collector, forming a hub-and-spoke network of communication. Also Wi-Fi® or Bluetooth® are viable for breakers used in residential or commercial establishments or in an industrial setup where high data rate and large bandwidth is required.
"Utilities and asset managers can reduce the load to a transformer that is approaching end-of-life so that it lasts longer, while scheduling a replacement in advance and planning to route power another way during the maintenance," Amit said. “By running asset health diagnostics, you can analyze the data for factors that affect the transformer life, such as the energy load, temperature, insulation and health. You can predict when things start to break down and prevent problems before they happen.”
Similarly, smart meters can measure and communicate water, gas or electricity usage in real-time so that utility companies can effectively plan generation capacity and consumers can make more intelligent choices about their individual consumption. Our company’s ultrasonic sensing technology uses soundwaves rather than mechanical components to measure gas and water flow rates, which improves measurement accuracy to detect pipeline leaks earlier and prevents loss of scarce resources. Utility companies can also predict the battery life of smart meters with our company’s battery management technology, which allows operators to avoid service outages and premature meter replacement.
“Being able to see into the future and know exactly how much longer the battery is going to last gives water and gas utility operators a much greater ability to minimize their overall total cost of ownership for a smart meter network,” said Andrew Soukup, a manager at our company. “Utilities can pass these savings on to consumers.”
A smarter way to distribute power
As power sources trend toward renewable energies like solar and wind, the modernized grid – once a one-way street from generator to user – is evolving into a dynamic, interconnected web. Homes with small-scale wind or solar farms are both consumers and generators of electricity, augmenting central power plants.
“In the past decade, alternative sources like wind and solar have taken off for several reasons,” said Bart Basile, a system engineer for our company. “The technologies have gotten better, they've become less expensive and consumer demand for renewably sourced energy has grown.”
In addition to distributed small-scale generation, power can be generated from large wind and solar farms in remote areas with low demand for distribution and routed to cities or suburbs that need more than they could produce locally – even across state lines.
"In Texas, for example, it's more common now to have private companies build out the distribution network," he said. "And then energy providers of power can figure out which source to tap into as they need."
Electricity storage on wheels
As transportation also becomes greener – and electric vehicles replace cars, trucks and buses that run on fossil fuels – onboard chargers will get better at storing power. With bi-directional charging, cars become electricity storage on wheels that charge at one location and deliver it back to the grid at another when it’s needed.
Imagine if the electric vehicle in your garage could run 400 miles on one charge, but through communications, cloud computing and the automated grid, the car knows you won’t drive more than 50 miles tomorrow. Energy you won’t be using could be pulled out of the car while you sleep and delivered back to the grid to power your home, for example, and to balance fluctuations in power demand.
“Right now we have a traditional network meant for traditional power generation,” Amit said. “But technology breakthroughs are creating a diversified database of power sources. As utility companies manage those to build the grid of the future, we’ll see improvements in monitoring, protection and control.”
Reality technologies aren’t just for video games. Whether it's a machine operator using goggles for directions or an engineer seeing a plant before construction starts, manufacturers are eagerly adopting virtual tools to streamline how they create, craft and complete their production line.
Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) head-mount displays are making important headway into how factories are run and even designed, saving time and money. More than one in three manufacturers have already adopted the twin technologies or plan to in the next three years.1
"I definitely see AR and VR technologies being applied more and more in manufacturing,” said Miro Adzan, a general manager at our company. “They can increase efficiency, cut costs and reduce injuries."
Here are three areas where AR and VR technologies can make a difference on the factory floor:
Futuristic instruction manuals
Factory workers assemble hundreds or thousands of components in a particular order as fast as possible. Imagine if they could wear glasses that give a quick, graphical hint about where to put a hand to pick the right component. Smart headsets and glasses – which blend virtual imagery, instrumentation and words into what people are really seeing – can put digital instructions about how to build a product or run a specific machine directly within an operator’s field of view, keeping hands free to handle machines on task rather than browsing through hundreds of printed pages.
“This supports the production process and reduces training time, allowing you to quickly move from one product to another,” Miro said. “You can also help prevent workers from doing something the wrong way by guiding them through the correct process.”
While walking the manufacturing line, engineers can easily see the status of each individual machine – including how long it’s been running, its current output and its number of failures. Image quality, brightness efficiency and high contrast, which are highlights of our company's DLP® Pico™ display products, create rich AR displays that help virtual information naturally blend into the real world.
By simply scanning the machine’s barcode, its server can upload status information or send maintenance instructions straight to the engineer’s glasses. If there’s a jam, for example, AR can give insight into how a machine’s subsystems work together and help workers visualize whether parts can be reached and repaired without dismantling the entire unit.
"You can dynamically change what you're looking for with the click of your fingers," Miro said.
Factory workers aren't the only ones benefiting from virtual technologies during the manufacturing process. Engineers are adopting VR to see how factories may look before construction ever starts, said Jesse Richuso, a product marketing engineer at our company. They can create optimum arrangements for machinery, improving worker efficiency and lowering cost before the foundation is even laid.
“Advancements in depth sensors built in to headsets combined with light field or multi-focal plane displays, which help the brain think that a virtual object is located at the correct distance from the viewer, could improve virtual renderings so that designers, architects and manufacturers can more effectively engage with computer-generated 3D modeling,” Jesse said.
While AR and VR tools are already at play in factories, such technologies are quickly expanding – and in some cases becoming standard tools – building a more seamless experience for manufacturers from the foundation up.
“They’re touching everything you can imagine on the factory floor,” Miro said.
1According to research firm PwC
Half the space, double the power: How gallium nitride is revolutionizing robotics, renewable energy, telecom and more
From brick-like cell phones to heavyweight television sets, power supplies have a history of taking up an unsightly amount of space in electronics – and the need for higher power density has only continued to soar.
Innovation in silicon power supplies helped cut these old models down to a more manageable size, but those improvements have been mined to the limit. Silicon simply can't run at the frequencies necessary to deliver more power without growing in size. That's a critical factor for 5G wireless network rollout, for the future of robotics and for technology from renewable energy to data centers.
"Engineers have reached the limit – they can't push more power in the space they have and they don't want to increase the space their equipment needs," said Masoud Beheshti, a product manager at our company. "If the form factor can't change, the only knob you can play with is power density."
Learn how you can achieve higher power density with our portfolio of GaN devices.
GaN's prime-time moment
For more than 60 years, silicon has been the basis of the electrical components that convert alternating current (AC) to direct current (DC) and change DC voltage to fit the needs of everything from mobile phones to industrial robots. And while the necessary components have been refined and optimized, physics has caught up with silicon.
But a new breed of power supply and conversion systems based on gallium-nitride (GaN) is solving the problem, generating less power waste and also less heat – which is critical since higher temperatures can increase operating costs, interfere with networking signals and lead to premature equipment failure.
GaN can process power at higher frequencies and with greater efficiency – it can deliver power with half the loss of a silicon component in as little as half the space. That improves power density, a critical concern for customers who need more power without giving up more space in their designs.
Higher frequency switching means that GaN can also convert wider ranges of power in a single step, reducing the need for additional power converters in complex devices. Because each power conversion introduces more waste, this advantage is critical for a growing number of high-voltage applications.
A 60-year technology doesn't disappear overnight, but after years of research, real-world trials and reliability testing, GaN is more than ready to become the future of power density. Our company has put GaN devices through 20 million hours of accelerated reliability testing at higher temperatures and voltages than silicon. In that much time the GlobalFlyer jet – the world record holder for long-range flight – could make 259,740 trips around the globe.
"We made sure the GaN process, technology and devices are fully qualified and ready for mass production," Masoud said.
Our company is sharing these GaN qualification protocols with the Joint Electron Device Engineering Council standards body, and will steer its GaN qualification committee.
Where GaN will go next
GaN is already replacing silicon in key industries where improved power density is a premium feature. "Now that our company has mastered our GaN packaging and testing, customers have a new and reliable power converter option anywhere power density is a priority," said Arianna Rajabi, a product marketing engineer at our company.
These industries are among the best candidates for mainstream, mass-produced GaN power supplies:
Manufacturing: Today's typical robot arms don't actually contain all of the electronics needed to make the arm work. Power conversion and motor drive components are so large and inefficient that they are often located in separate cabinets, cabled over long distances to the arm itself. This reduces the productivity per cubic meter of industrial robots. GaN will make it easier to incorporate drive and power conversion inside the actual robot. That will streamline designs, reduce inefficient cabling and lower operating costs.
Data centers: Spurred by the insatiable demand for more digital services, the data center industry is in the middle of an overhaul to run directly from 48-volt DC power. Traditional silicon power conversion cannot efficiently go from 48 volts down to the low voltages required for most computing hardware in a single step. Creating intermediate steps reduces data-center power efficiency. GaN can step down from 48 volts to point-of-load before being delivered to servers and chips. This can reduce power distribution losses significantly and cuts conversion losses by 30 percent.
Wireless services: The move to blanket populations with comprehensive 5G cellular networks requires network operators to deploy higher-frequency equipment running on more power. Network operators don't want to increase the size of cell tower equipment, so GaN's power-density advantages will play a significant role.
Renewable energy: Renewable energy generation and storage also requires power conversion steps, so GaN's efficiency advantages are key. Since renewable energy plans often use a smart grid approach that stores energy for later use – when wind turbines are still or solar panels aren't being powered by the sun – being able to switch power in and out of large-scale batteries more efficiently is a great benefit. Our company and partners have demonstrated GaN's ability to convert 10 kilowatts of renewable energy generation with 99 percent efficiency, a key benchmark for power utilities.
Over time, GaN will continue to expand into applications like consumer electronics, allowing for thinner flat-panel displays and reduced waste in rechargeable devices.
"If you just need a 3 percent or 4 percent efficiency improvement, you can get that other ways," Masoud said. "But if you need to double power density, GaN is your only option."
Automation is coming to your home, car, office and the factories that make the everyday components of our lives.
In smart buildings and factories, machines and appliances can think for themselves and talk to one another. And building managers and manufacturers are dreaming of a day when their equipment can operate autonomously. But it doesn’t stop with buildings and factories. Our cars will tell our houses to turn on the lights when we’re on the way home. Our offices will adjust the temperature based on how many people are in the office. Traffic signals will know when to change based on automobile and pedestrian traffic. The possibilities go on and on.
"Electronics in applications ranging from robots on the factory floor to a modern electric grid to appliances in a smart home will make our lives smarter and more connected as sensing and processing technology continues to advance,” said Stefan Bruder, who leads our company in EMEA. “Touch points in our cars, homes and factories will collect data that will be processed in real-time and enable machines, robots and sensors to communicate with each another.”
For electronica – a leading electronics show and conference held Nov. 13-16 in Munich – we’ll bring many of these innovations to life. To get a head start for the show, check out these 360-degree tours of a smart building, a smart factory and a smart car and learn how industrial innovations are making a difference today.
Individuals and businesses are embracing Internet of Things (IoT) technologies to run their buildings more sustainably and cost-effectively. But that requires more edge computing and a growing amount of semiconductor content. A host of innovations in automation will help make buildings safer, smarter and more efficient. Using our company’s sensing capabilities for intelligent detection, building managers will be alerted when systems don’t operate as they should, which will reduce downtime and inconvenience.
At electronica, we are highlighting our company’s sensing capabilities and connectivity technology that support multiple wireless protocols, including Bluetooth®, Thread®, Zigbee® and WiFi®. Take a look inside the home of the future:
Industrial IoT is critical in factory design. Manufacturers need smarter technologies to help factories run more effectively and predict issues before they happen. That means transmitting data to the cloud as well as from machine to machine. Manufacturers will need industrial automation, robotics, predictive maintenance and machine vision for more effective production lines. Take a look inside the factory of the future:
Car designers routinely look for ways to improve their vehicles, whether maximizing the driving distance per charge, improving vehicle perception and driver visibility, or enhancing passenger comfort and convenience. Manufacturers are turning to innovations such as vehicle electrification, digital cockpits, connectivity and autonomous driving technologies to create better driving experiences. Take a look at the car of the future:
Our company’s booth at electronica will be a great opportunity to check out the technologies behind smart buildings, smart factories and smart driving. Engineering experts at four technology centers will provide interactive presentations that feature power management, sensing, wireless connectivity, microcontroller, processor, gallium nitride and ultrasonic sensing technologies.
In a world where humans and machines continually interact, isolation matters. Miles of wiring in an electric car connect switches, sensors and high-voltage motors. An industrial controller exchanges data, commands and power with sensors on a factory floor. A high-voltage medical device monitors patients in clinics or extended-care facilities. A USB interface connects industrial machines to microcontrollers. A high-voltage relay operates on commands from a smart controller.
Examples such as these machine-to-machine and human-to-machine interactions are becoming more and more common as mechanical industrial systems are replaced with electrical motors, sensors and actuators. Clunky switches are being replaced with sensitive touch controls. The number of electrical motors - many operating at high voltages - is growing rapidly. Semiconductor switches operating at high voltages are being deployed regularly. And they all need to communicate and interact with smart controllers and drivers. The increasing number of industrial, automotive, medical and offline applications need the protection, noise immunity and reliable performance that isolation technology provides.
Isolators are critical for reliable and, when applied correctly, safe operations. For example, an isolator can help protect humans against electric shock hazard by isolating accessible circuits from high voltage or a low-voltage processor, such as our C2000™ microcontroller, that drives a powerful industrial motor.
The trend toward transferring data rates of several hundred megabits and more across isolation barriers with high efficiency and robustness against high-voltage surges is becoming common in many industrial applications. Also, data and power are being transferred across some isolation barriers in gate-driver and industrial-sensor applications. The push to increase the number of channels and channel-to-channel isolation is increasing demand for miniaturized solutions.
So what exactly is isolation? An isolation barrier is a physical media that facilitates the reliable exchange of data and/or power between two systems while preventing unwanted currents. There are several key attributes for an integrated isolation technology:
- The maximum voltage that an isolator can tolerate for a short period of time (surge voltage) or during normal operation (working voltage).
- The maximum rate of change of ground potential difference that the isolator can withstand without incurring a communication error.
- Latency caused by the isolation barrier, direct distance (clearance) and surface distance (creepage) between power pins.
- The level of electromagnetic interference.
A variety of approaches
As more devices are integrated in chip packages - replacing discrete capacitors and transformers - several approaches have been used:
Capacitive: Integrated capacitors using multi-layer silicon oxide instead of discrete capacitors offer a high level of isolation while transferring data through an electric field. Our capacitive isolation technology utilizes two capacitors in series on two die housed side-by-side in the same module. This approach allows us to offer a competitive reinforced isolation solution for high data-rate transfer. The data rate over a capacitive isolation barrier can exceed several hundred megabits per second. With some innovative circuit topologies, the data rate can go even higher, which is appealing for applications such as industrial Ethernet. Our company’s isolators leverage the advantages of customized CMOS technology to offer a high-performance reinforced isolation barrier.
Inductive: A pair of coupled inductors can be used to isolate two circuits while exchanging data through magnetic flux. Two inductors could be embedded in a laminate printed circuit board or monolithically integrated on a die. A unique advantage of inductive isolation is the capability to transfer power across the isolation barrier in excess of hundreds of milliwatts, removing the need for an additional power supply on the secondary side. Transferring power with high efficiency, in addition to sending data over the isolation barrier, is important for many industrial applications in order to enable low-input currents and very high maximum operating ambient temperature. TI digital isolators with integrated power technology provide highest power transfer efficiency through innovative material and inductor design.
Capacitive and inductive isolations are frequently combined with data and/or power conditioning. Data conditioning minimizes the danger that transient spikes will appear as data, helping isolation protect signals and ensure the smooth operation of equipment. Power conditioning optimizes power transfer efficiency.
Isolation can also be achieved by physically separating two systems while communicating through optical or electromagnetic waves.
One isolation solution will not fit every need. In many cases, industrial applications demand integrated solutions that include isolated amplifiers, isolated high-speed data links such as RS-485 signals, isolated gate drivers and so on. As humans and machines increasingly cooperate and collaborate, high-voltage isolation solutions will enable systems to operate robustly and reliably.
"It's red for me, and there's not a single person coming in any other direction," he says. "I have to calm myself before I get into my car, because I know it's going to happen."
We've all been there, but for the leader of the industrial radar group at our company, it's an especially aggravating experience. Robert knows that with a simple radar chip, that light would know to change colors for him. He can't wait for the day when our TI millimeter-wave (mmWave) sensors enable traffic signals everywhere to make informed, on-the-spot decisions.
The day isn't far off. Millimeter-wave technology is now available in production in mass quantities to bring advanced radar sensors to our industrial and automotive customers. We're the first to offer the world's most precise single-chip CMOS radar sensor. With a microcontroller, a radio-frequency (RF) front end, a hardware accelerator and a programmable digital signal processor (DSP), TI mmWave sensors calculate an object's range, velocity and angle at up to three times higher resolution than any other radar sensor on the market. Then it decides what action to take.
A simpler, single-chip design
Previous generations of radar sensors were bigger, far more complex designs. They featured several discrete components on a single printed circuit board connected by high-speed interfaces to a processor on a second board. Instead, TI mmWave sensors integrate analog and digital circuits onto one chip.
And unlike analog-only radar sensors, these sensors don't send data to a processor, server or the cloud to wait for instructions.
"All the intelligence is in the sensor," Robert said. "This is intelligent autonomy at the edge."
Precise and highly programmable, TI mmWave sensors have the potential to do far more good than to shorten Robert's commute. From making homes more comfortable to improving workplace efficiency to enhancing smart cities, they have far-reaching implications.
Automotive and industrial customers are already specifying and designing our mmWave sensors into their products. So are engineers in agriculture, drone development, healthcare, human-robot collaboration, security and more.
"The fact that our highly programmable sensor is integrated with analog and digital functions makes it easy to use for our customers," said Kishore Ramaiah, a leader in our automotive radar group.
See how TI mmWave sensors make life smarter
Ubiquity, not singularity
To be clear, "intelligent autonomy at the edge" is not code for artificial superintelligence. Whether a decision is made on the spot or in the network, "this is still a processing engine that's using hardware, software and logic to communicate decisions to a larger network," Robert said. "Our goal on the industrial side is to improve certain applications by adding sensing. In some cases, we want to augment other sensing technologies – optical solutions or LIDAR – where we believe we bring a value proposition to improve things."
To enable autonomous vehicles, Kishore said, TI mmWave sensors must work in concert with multiple sensing modalities, including cameras, LIDAR and ultrasonic sensors. "One sensing technology might have a drawback that the other sensing technology can help mitigate," he said.
Either way – alone or to augment other sensors – the benefits of real-time decision-making, a low power and a tiny footprint are likely to make TI mmWave sensor use widespread, if not ubiquitous.
We announced mass production of our ultra-wideband automotive and industrial TI mmWave sensors in May and will continue to enhance our product portfolio.
How mmWave sensors change everything
Why would a TI mmWave sensor improve Robert's morning commute better than, say, a camera or a simple motion sensor? First, radar is more robust. Cameras and other technologies can be hindered by environmental conditions. But even in total darkness, rain and extreme temperatures, radar can sense how far away cars are. And integrated digital processing lets the mmWave sensor make decisions.
"Radar can say, 'I detect cars 50 meters away this way and 75 meters away in that direction, so I need to turn that light green and stop all the others,'" Robert said. "Without that processing capability, it would have to send its observations to a control center that would relay back the instruction to change the light."
With that decision-making capability, a TI mmWave sensor makes the decision locally and then relays its choice to the network for tracking.
Consider several other potentially transformative motion-detection applications for mmWave sensors:
- Eradicating false alarms from video doorbells. "All of us who have these systems also have about 30 seconds of wasted video on our cell phones from instances when the camera detected a tree swaying or sunlight moving," Robert said. But TI mmWave sensors can enable a doorbell to differentiate between a human, an animal and any other moving object before deciding whether to record.
- Aiding first responders. In office or apartment building incidents, TI mmWave sensors can enable the detection of fine movement through walls, which could help emergency workers rescue people faster. Even unconscious people would be noticed by radar that can sense micrometer movements such as a person's chest expanding and contracting while breathing.
- Optimizing indoor environments. mmWave sensors can enable smart building systems to autonomously adjust cooling, heating and lighting based on the numbers and flow of people in a room. Sure, cameras can see how many people are in a room, but TI mmWave sensors can assess populations and movements without invading privacy, regardless of darkness and despite doors and walls.
- Monitoring patients and newborns without contact. Mounted on a ceiling, under a mattress or behind a wall, TI mmWave sensors can enable the monitoring of a patient's heart rate, breathing and other vital signs without touching them. When integrated into medical systems, highly sensitive groups such as infants and burn victims could be monitored while sparing them the additional pain of physical interaction or the impracticality of attaching probes and electrodes.
Inside and outside automobiles, the applications for TI mmWave sensors are also many and varied. While radar for cars has existed for some time, Kishore said one difference now is that TI mmWave sensors enable cascaded radar.
"We can connect multiple radar transceivers in a cascaded format that make it possible for automobiles to detect objects up to 350 or more meters away," he said. "We will also be able to achieve a level of accuracy of less than 1 degree, which provides LIDAR-like performance."
Kishore predicts that by 2025, millimeter-wave will be a key technology for front radar systems in autonomous vehicles. It can also be placed in multiple locations in and on a car. Among the benefits:
- Children and pets can be detected in the back seat of a car and remind drivers of the presence of other passengers.
- Drivers who doze off could be nudged awake by a vibrating seat or steering wheel. mmWave sensors could pick up sleepiness signals even when a driver is wearing sunglasses or when the sun is shining too brightly for a camera to work effectively.
- Sensors that respond to breathing and heart-rate variability could help rescue suddenly ill drivers by helping the car navigate and alert the system to call emergency services.
- Car door operating systems could prevent injuries to fingers, collisions with bypassing bicyclists and damage to other parked cars.
- Because varying temperature pressures or same-frequency noises may cause ultrasonic parking assist sensors to fail, TI mmWave sensors can step in to aid automated parking. "The additional functionality of radar sensors will change the way parking applications are realized. This robustness to challenging environmental conditions is precisely the reason radars are needed for ADAS applications," Kishore said.
Our radar-assisted future
Drones, forklifts and robotic vacuums are just a few of hundreds of other types of equipment set to benefit immediately from intelligence at the edge, with TI mmWave sensors' ability to detect steep drop-offs, power lines and other obstacles. And Kishore says there are still a lot of applications to be explored for integrated mmWave sensors. In automobiles, he imagines mmWave sensor-enabled inter-vehicle communications and road hazard warnings.
As for future industrial uses, Robert envisions more automated warehouses, and, after that, radar-sensor-driven product delivery. He's particularly excited about the potential for intermingling a mmWave sensor’s unique capabilities to enable human-robot collaboration.
"Remember, radar gives you three pieces of data about an object that no other technology provides: range, speed and angle," he said. "So it can detect motion and recognize gestures at the same time."
In an automated factory setting, where alarms sound when humans come within a few meters of hazardous machines, mmWave sensors could sound them sooner if someone is approaching at higher speed. "It gives us the ability to create safety guards to reduce incidents," Robert said. Even automatic doors would be smarter, knowing to open when a person's body angle indicates that they want to exit and to stay closed for a passersby.
Ultimately, the ways TI mmWave sensors can make our world smarter are only as limited as developers' imaginations.
"We make the components that our customers use, and they come up with larger-than-life ideas that we'll see out in the real world," Robert said. "We're at the tip of the iceberg to see the proliferation of this type of technology, and we look forward to seeing what our customers do next."
Check out our white paper: mmWave: Enabling greater intelligent autonomy at the edge.
Cutting the cord doesn't just mean getting rid of your cable provider anymore. Robots and industrial machines once tethered to power outlets are starting to get a real taste of freedom thanks to advances in wireless high-power transfer.
Signs of an untethered future are starting to make it to a broader market, and they point to the same truth: Power cords once needed in industrial applications and to recharge electric vehicles are heading to the dustbin of history. They're being replaced with wireless power transfer, a technology that is rapidly advancing thanks to heavy research-and-development investment and a world of electric-powered machines ready for disruption.
Consumer products have already started incorporating wireless power transfer to great fanfare —smartphones, toothbrushes and the like with this capability are preferred over their predecessors. But the advance of industrial wireless power transfer has been stymied so far because transferring more power in the kilowatt range, compared to a few meager watts for small consumer electronics, demands better management components, consistent open-standard design architecture and more robust materials.
The push for high-power wireless power transfer has accelerated over the last few years in parallel with the growth of industrial automation and autonomous systems. Wireless power will also have its place in the Industrial Internet of Things, which is the rapidly expanding collection of connected machines, computers and sensors that is making everything from healthcare to airplanes and energy production smarter and more efficient.
Wireless power transfer will allow these devices to be more mobile and, with no need for plugs and connectors, to be built fully sealed so they can operate reliably in a range of challenging, variable environments. Just think — manufacturing robots will be able to move autonomously from station to station where they’re needed and recharge where and when it’s convenient.
"Wireless power transfer is the future," said Manish Bhardwaj, an engineer at our company who works on foundational components that wireless power transfer systems need. "In autonomous applications in factories, robotics, aerospace and automotive, when we cut the cord, all kinds of opportunities become possible."
Antique dreams become reality
But those cords come with all kinds of problems. They limit a device's mobility. They create weakness in even the best engineering plans by allowing water, dirt and air into connectors while also increasing wear and tear for devices that are continually being plugged in and detached. And on factory floors and elsewhere, cords also present a major hazard for people and machines navigating around them.
Since those first electric innovations arrived, the idea of wireless power has been a dream that is always just out of reach. The eccentric and brilliant inventor Nikola Tesla envisioned a wireless power grid that covered the globe, where machines would draw current just by tapping into it. But his experiments failed. Others made halting advances to transmit electricity throughout the 20th century, but the possibilities of wireless power have only started to be realized in recent years.
Coupling sends electricity through air
Wireless power transfer works via a principle called inductive charging. In simple terms, a coil in a transmitter couples with one in a remote receiver that can be inches or feet away, depending on the system. Together, these two coils create a virtual transformer. The transmitter releases electromagnetic energy that induces a current in the receiver. This current can be used to charge an on-board battery attached to the receiving coil.
Of course, actual wireless power transfer systems are much more complex, and handling more power for applications at the center of manufacturing and automotive components comes with its own set of challenges. The current gets converted a few times, an antenna amplifies the electromagnetic wave and specialty diodes control the electricity so that it can be safely transmitted and used.
Read our white paper: Exploring the evolution and optimization of wireless power transfer
The brains of the operation
The key to making this complex system work involves putting a digital brain at the center of it to control things like the electromagnetic wave's frequency, amplitude and phase. That becomes even more important in kilowatt-powered industrial processes and electric vehicle charging.
Our C2000™ real-time microcontroller (MCU) is a key component that many companies rely on. It’s a small microcontroller – located on both the transmitter and receiver and communicating over Bluetooth® or Wi-Fi® – used to manage power flow. The C2000 MCU can automatically tune the system by sensing input voltages to the transmitter, battery demand and other factors to adapt to constantly changing power needs and supply.
Taiwan's KNOWMAX Technology Ltd. is one of the wireless power transfer industry leaders harnessing the intelligent controls built into the C2000 MCU. The company holds a number of patents to incorporate cutting-edge wireless charging technology into electrical systems.
"TI's C2000 MCUs give us the flexibility we need to adapt our systems to different markets," KNOWMAX project manager Tank Huang said. "This component really enables precise control of our power stages so that we can transfer power as efficiently as possible."
With a goal of being market leaders in the essential equipment that makes high-power wireless power transfer possible, our researchers are pushing our components to intelligently handle increasing power transfer rates and distance between transmitter and receiver. With all of this dedicated work to improve wireless power transfer engineering, we expect to see it deployed in robotics, industrial utility and warehouse vehicles, electric cars, and larger fleet and construction vehicles.
"No pun intended, but the air is electrified for those of us in the wireless power transfer space right now," said Chris Clearman, a C2000 MCU product marketing engineer. "Engineers soon won't need to scour their plans to find optimal placements for high-voltage receptacles. Consumers are going to be driving in electric vehicles that won't need to be plugged in. Factory employees will work alongside wirelessly charging robots. When you think about it, we're developing a technology that will eventually reach every person and industry on Earth."
The key to a happy life is having an occupation you enjoy and a hobby you love. So says Steven Zhou, a member of our company’s sales team in Shanghai who has made it his mission to spark a passion for science and technology among as many Chinese young people as he can.
Steven still remembers the day more than 20 years ago when his own interest in technology was piqued at his Shanghai school. He was 12.
"At that time, I thought high technology was a radio," he said. "They showed us a laptop computer. That laptop could do so much – it could calculate things and play video games. There was also a satellite phone. They told us, 'You can use this phone to talk to people who live in the United States.' The U.S. was a very far-away concept to me. I was impressed."
A die-hard DIYer
Steven credits the encounter with setting him on the path to both his career and his hobby.
In middle school, he began building remote-controlled model cars and won races by modifying their control circuits to run on lithium power instead of AA batteries. In high school, he learned physics concepts to build and balance model airplanes and tweaked electronic technologies to better control them. And he gained entry to one of China's top electrical engineering degree programs by winning first place in a national competition to design and build a functional device using a few basic components.
Even today, Steven maintains a laboratory in his apartment – equipped with a 3D printer and an oscilloscope – where he tinkers with model yachts, rockets, robots and drones. His wife has embraced his hobby, and he's exposing his young son to scientific principles in his workshop.
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Bringing the magic to many more
To help schoolchildren across China discover their passion for science and technology the way he did, Steven created the TI Magic Electronic Course. It's a fun, interactive one-day program that teaches primary and secondary students the basics of integrated circuits and exposes them to science, engineering and technology.
A team of volunteer instructors has already brought the Magic Course to 10,000 students in 30 Chinese schools. Since 2014, Steven has personally delivered it to more than 1,000 students and has overseen the program's expansion beyond China's rural network of Project Hope Schools into urban school districts. Many volunteers from our company also teach the course.
Now, he has developed a multiday course and is working with colleagues to train teachers and university volunteers to lead it.
"That way we can influence more people," he says. "I want the TI Magic Electronic Course to be a famous brand in China, and I hope to reach at least 10 times the number of students who have already been taught this course. That means 100,000."
But why a "magic" course?
"Science is useful and powerful, it's strong and can be used for special effects," Steven said. "Often, the knowledge we teach is very new to the students. They have never heard before how a cell phone works or why an airplane can fly in the air or why a television can show a picture of something far away. It seems like magic to them."
Steven says he's thrilled when he can inspire passion for technology in the next generation of innovators. He's touched by students like the one who thanked him by mailing him a paper model airplane illustrated with an integrated circuit.
"I love technology," he says. "And it makes me happy to bring that to young children, to help them understand and know more about how the modern world works."
You’re an engineer on a tight schedule to design a power supply for a robot that will automate a factory. Or maybe you’re designing the power supply for an automotive braking system. Or a remote-controlled toy airplane. Or a smartphone.
You’ve got decisions to make. You need a switching regulator for DC/DC conversion, but there are over 1,000 to choose from. There are tradeoffs between efficiency, footprint and total cost based on the integrated circuit and surrounding components you choose. Your design has stringent performance and size requirements. Your team may not include a power-supply design expert or layout expert. The pressure is on.
“Time to market is critical for our customers,” said Vinay Jayaram, who leads the team at our company that creates online design tools for our analog portfolio. “We want to make it easy for our customers to select and design the right products for their applications quickly and accurately. We’re building intuitive tools that utilize powerful algorithms to deliver customized designs in seconds. These tools automate a lot of information contained in datasheets and application notes, generating the exact design a customer needs for their application.”
Our company pioneered the use of online design tools about 20 years ago. Today, tens of thousands of design engineers around the world rely on WEBENCH Power Designer each year.
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“At any company – big or small, in any industry, at any location in the world – there are going to be design engineers making decisions about what components to use for their next product,” Vinay said. “Designing analog systems accurately is difficult, and a lot of companies don’t have in-house expertise. We make it easy for design engineers to get accurate, high-quality designs and solutions that work the first time so they can get their products to market faster.”
For years, the team that designs online tools has been gathering feedback from customers, our company’s field applications engineers and others to learn what was most important for the people who use the tool every day. What they discovered was simple: Engineers want an intuitive experience and accurate solutions.
So Vinay’s team of analog experts, mathematicians and software programmers got to work building WEBENCH Power Designer with the right frameworks, algorithms and models for our company’s portfolio of power products. The result is a powerful, end-to-end design tool that’s fast, highlights content that design engineers need, and enables them to compare devices and make quick, customized decisions.
“Power management is critical for every application in the world,” Vinay said. “We help customers solve problems that will benefit the world. Using our technology and tools will help customers get to market faster with the best design that meets their system requirements.”
Whether it's Beijing, Frankfurt or Chicago, go to any of the world’s biggest auto shows and it quickly becomes clear that carmakers are going all in to develop vehicles that are smart, intuitive and connected.
"A lot of features available in today’s vehicles were in the realm of science fiction a few years ago,” said Hannes Estl, an engineer and general manager at our company.
The connected cars of today provide a glimpse into the future. Though talking on the phone while driving can be a distraction, for current and future generations of cars, communication in the car isn’t discouraged – it’s advancing. The difference is that the cars are doing the communicating.
Connected cars enable smarter rides
By connecting to the cloud through high-speed cell networks, vehicle communication is opening the door to dramatic improvements in comfort, safety and drivability. Technology is redefining the personal transportation experience as digital connectivity quickly becomes the automotive industry norm. More and more, vehicles will connect to personal electronics, homes and the broad landscape of the Internet of Things.
"The typical car today is more computer than machine," said Hope Bovenzi, a systems engineer for automotive infotainment systems. "There's so much we're putting into these vehicles. So much can now be done to make cars more entertaining and safe."
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The digital cockpit will continue to evolve as we move to autonomy. More and more streaming entertainment content will be available and consumable as the vehicle interior changes.
"Imagine on long road trips parents can turn around the front seats to have dinner with their kids and dim the windshield glass so the family can watch a movie as they continue down the road," Hannes said.
These features will coincide with 5G mobile network deployment, which will dramatically increase connectivity speed and bandwidth, and car-to-car communications. This will unlock the power of collective coordination for cars, in which a vehicle makes an emergency stop for a fallen tree and relays that information to other vehicles a mile behind it. Or a group of cars relay traffic patterns or deteriorating weather conditions to others in the area so they can reroute. At the same time, we'll also see the slow implementation of smart-city infrastructure, where sensor-embedded light poles monitor and alert drivers when a parking spot opens up or when a bridge is about to open.
"Many of these connected features will make our cars safer, easier to drive, more comfortable and more fuel efficient," Hannes said. "And once you have the technical capability, why would you even want to drive or own your own vehicle? Just push a button in your app and the robo-taxi will be waiting for you."
Smart systems for seamless driving
Big changes are happening, and even bigger ones are coming within a decade. Innovations in connectivity and advanced driver assistance systems will intersect, enabling fully autonomous systems to start penetrating the automobile market. This will unlock new design paradigms that dramatically reconfigure how designers and engineers build cars, and how these machines deliver entertainment and information to their occupants.
Anybody who has been in the market for a new car in last few years will be familiar with the smart systems available today to assist drivers and help cars perceive the world around them. Adaptive cruise control uses the vehicle’s onboard radar, LIDAR or cameras to sense vehicles ahead and automatically adjust its speed to maintain a safe distance. Lane-departure warnings feed information from cameras to processors to alert a driver when the car is drifting out of its lane. Lane-keeping systems make corrective actions to keep the vehicle between the lines. Image processing and computer vision systems already let cars understand traffic signs on the road to automatically adjust speed to legal limits or brake if the driver doesn't see a stop sign. The list goes on.
Though the exact timing is debated, some experts predict that advanced driver-assistance systems will evolve to allow highly and fully autonomous driving – without the need for driver input – within in the next decade. Cars will seamlessly operate within smart cities and drive on highways without the driver's foot on the pedals, hands on the wheel or even eyes on the road.
Common to all of these exciting innovations and a reimagined future for automobiles is the most foundational element – the integrated circuits being developed by our company that make it all possible.
"In biology class, students talk about cells being the building blocks of life," Hope said. "Our integrated circuits are the building blocks of electronics, and more and more of them are being put into cars. So much is changing – it's such a fun time to be in the connected-car world."
Deepa, 18, is determined to change the arc of her life.
Her family, who lives in Bangalore, India, has an annual income of about $265. But she hopes that a training program will give her the knowledge she needs to move up the economic ladder. The program is part of the Abdul Kalam Susandhi Fellowship (AKSF), which supports students who come from below the poverty line and have just completed their schooling. Students such as Deepa – who have a spark for learning but can’t enroll in a professional engineering program due to lack of funds or access to the internet – have been chosen to participate.
“It’s been a really great experience for me to learn technical things with practical knowledge,” she wrote in a thank-you letter to donors. “The program is totally different from ordinary courses. It’s really helping the students who are unable to get proper education because of financial problems.”
Our company helps fund scholarships for Deepa and 19 other students who are part of a one-year residential program that provides employment opportunities in the domains of very-large-scale integration, embedded systems and software engineering. Additionally, volunteers from our company teach students on the weekend.
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Elsewhere in Bangalore, the school that fifth-grader Mustafa attends didn’t have proper toilets or drinking water when he began attending. Today, it has those essentials and more.
“After Texas Instruments adopted it, we were provided with better facilities, along with technology, interesting learning tools, computers and laptops for students, and free educational tours,” he said.
Employees from our company in India are passionate about improving their communities – and helping students such as Deepa and Mustafa. Because of the volunteer efforts of dozens of TIers, the TI India Community Involvement Team was a recent finalist for the TI Founders Community Impact Award for efforts to improve the communities where we live and work. Nine other teams around the world were also recognized with this internal award.
A smile speaks a thousand words
Sreeja Chakingal, a layout design manager at our company, volunteers almost every Saturday teaching English to fourth- and fifth-graders in India. She loves seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces as they learn how to read something for the first time, but remembers helping two girls who initially weren’t interested in her lessons.
“I started teaching through activities instead of just teaching theory,” she said. “That kindled their interest. Now, at the end of their fifth standard, they both can read a storybook and refer to the dictionary to find the meanings of words. I love being with kids. Teaching them, clearing their doubts and helping them learn is extremely satisfying.”
Learn more about our commitment to the communities where we live and work
Sreeja has participated for more than three years in the School Adopt Program. Our team works with several non-profit organizations (NGOs) to support initiatives in education, healthcare, the environment and disaster relief. Our educational initiatives cover a range of projects – from building infrastructure to providing stable learning environments to mentoring children in need. The School Adopt Program is one of those initiatives.
In India, our company is required by the India Companies Act to file an “Annual Report on Corporate Social Responsibility Activities.” We have been active in Bangalore and its surrounding communities for many years, but this legislation provides an opportunity to refine our philanthropy strategy to align with global corporate objectives and values. Through this process, we identified and vetted nongovernmental organization partners that are helping us make a greater impact.
Building a technical pipeline
Deepa and other students in the Abdul Kalam Susandhi Fellowship program will receive six months of soft-skill training – including courses in communication, teamwork and basic computer skills – and six months of technical training, including basic math, physics, electronics and programming. After the fellowship ends, students have the opportunity to work as paid interns with well-known corporations while taking undergraduate courses. By the time they graduate, students have a job waiting.
“We liked that this program focuses on higher education, and it’s a great way for TIers to apply their own technical backgrounds and share their skills with the community,” said Premkumar Vadapalli, a software manager who oversees the AKSF program at our company.
Seminars led by TIers have covered design, programming, the Internet of Things and microcontrollers.
“Through AKSF, students are able to gain access to the semiconductor industry,” Premkumar said. “In the absence of the program, they might have gone in a completely different direction. Many students have the academic skillset, but couldn’t compete to get into professional engineering and technical programs. Now, they have an opportunity to do that.”
From toilets to field trips
At Mustafa’s school, our company provides funding and volunteer support to the NGO Youth for Seva for the School Adopt Program, which promotes holistic development of children in government schools through long-term initiatives. Our company has adopted six schools in Bangalore and 10 schools in rural areas and plans to adopt more schools.
Thanks in part to this support, the Annasandrapalya Government School has earned state and national recognition, such as the prestigious Nadaprabhu Kempegowda Award, which is given to disciplined and well-managed government schools, and the Swachh Vidyalaya Puraskar for excellence in water, sanitation and hygiene practices.
“Texas Instruments has helped us in many ways, including the improvement of student hygiene and health,” said Pooja Obulappa, headmaster of the Annasandrapalya school. “Educational trips and quiz competitions have helped them learn new concepts. I thank all the volunteers and Texas Instruments for making this happen.”
Hope and guidance
TIers want to give back to the communities where they live and work.
“All of us were fortunate to get access to quality education,” said Mohit Chawla, an analog design manager at our company and a School Adopt Program volunteer for five years. “It is our responsibility to ensure that future generations get access to quality education, as well. Our efforts help children understand that education is invaluable. We can give them the hope and guidance required to achieve their dreams.”
“I teach English, math and computer-related topics to these children and the enthusiasm these students show keeps me inspired," said Ramesh Ramani, a senior program manager at our company and a regular volunteer. “It’s an immensely satisfying feeling to see them grow, and I hope this encourages them to pursue higher education and work toward a satisfying career.”