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The lowest-power processor on the planet: An ipXperience with Ambiq’s Scott Hanson

In this ipXperience interview, Guy chats with Scott Hanson, CTO of Ambiq, a disruptive company that is making waves in the field of low power consumption, offering an alternative to bigger SoC manufacturers like STMicroelectronics, NXP, Nordic, and Silicon Labs. If you want the lowest power hardware and software, Ambiq is a name to consider. 

This is not the first time ipXchange has covered Ambiq’s ultra-low-power SoCs, but it’s a different experience hearing about Ambiq’s development from the source, so we truly hope you enjoy this discussion. It’s possibly our best to date.

The discussion begins with a brief nod to the Apollo4 Plus Display Kit, which allows designers to experience Ambiq’s ultra-low-power SoC in wearable applications. As Scott explains, Ambiq’s aim is to continue to offer the lowest-power chips on the planet, and when they think of low power, they are thinking in terms of picojoules of energy as they optimise their designs. But where did this mentality come from?

Scott continues by describing his time at the University of Michigan, developing IoT solutions as small as a cubic millimetre, known as ‘smart dust’, with the computing, connectivity, battery, sensor, and energy harvesting infrastructure all in one place. From his time doing this research, Scott founded Ambiq to bring low-power IoT to the mainstream. Ambiq’s Apollo series boasts the lowest-power processors on the planet. SPOT (Sub-threshold Power Optimized Technology) is the key technology behind this, and it works by taking advantage of the sub-threshold region of the transistor for computing using binary based on the leakage rather than the full ‘ON’ mode of the transistor. With around 0.4 V representing a ‘1’ in binary, this shift translates to huge power savings, since power is proportional to voltage squared.

After a prompt from Guy, Scott then describes the nature of Ambiq’s SoCs, which typically include a Cortex-M MCU, memory, and Bluetooth LE, but more advanced models offer graphics accelerators and display controllers, analogue peripherals, audio interfaces, comparators, and more. Ambiq’s broard product portfolio means that designers can select a SoC that suits their required peripherals, but there is plenty of flexibility to connect with other devices with their own interfacing infrastructure. This makes Ambiq’s chips easy to integrate with other devices in your system, with official partners and a strong software team supporting these integration efforts.

The Apollo4 Plus display kit illustrates this functionality extremely well. All the hardware and software is there for out-of-the-box development of wearables, particularly in medical applications thanks to the other onboard sensors. Ambiq has also noticed many customers developing neural networks on their devices, for example for gesture control or smart thermostats, and Ambiq also provides software suites to accelerate development of these workloads.

Next, Guy asks Scott to define low power, which Scott answers from a useful standpoint: <1 mW with tens of MHz of constant processing with constant sensor data input, and output onto a display. To achieve this, everything must be done extremely efficiently, and this is part of the reason why so much infrastructure is featured within an Ambiq SoC, since that is the best way to do every part of the process in the most efficient way. Unlike most low-power solutions, Ambiq is not ‘OFF’ during low-power operation. A key value to Ambiq’s technology is that you can keep the same size of battery and life, but do so much more, instead of simply extending battery life or using a smaller battery, which, of course, Ambiq can still help you do.

Apollo is typically found in wearables, medical devices, smart home devices, and smart credit cards, and you can apply to evaluate this technology by following the link to the board form below.

Guy finishes the chat with a friendly discussion of the future of Ambiq and how neural network technology will likely be a growing trend thanks to the headroom afforded by Ambiq’s low-power technology. This will be particularly interesting for audiovisual applications. As we can see, Scott is optimistic, with the firm belief that Moore’s Law is alive and well for Ambiq’s processes. He is also keen to hear everyone’s crazy ideas of what they want from Ambiq chips and, with his team, see if this can be done, so if you’re building a low-power device, get in touch through one of our board forms, and ipXchange will be glad to get you connected.

What a great discussion! 

Keep designing! 

Ambiq Apollo4 Plus SoC Display Kit

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