Miniaturization, localization, and security define the SiP module targeted at tracking devices for IoT applications.
System-in-package (SiP) designs are starting to claim a position right in the middle of standard modules and chip-down designs that mandate large volumes to justify effort and cost. That’s been one of the original promises of the SiP movement, and that’s what u-blox is claiming for its ALEX-R5 combo module for positioning and tracking devices.
“The SiP is based on a manufacturing process that is different from standard modules, and that’s why it has been able to massively reduce the size,” said Samuele Falcomer, principal product manager at u-blox. Inside the SiP, there are two distinct chipsets: UBX-R5 is for the LTE part and M8 serves as the global navigation satellite system (GNSS) engine. Moreover, ALEX-R5 features a dedicated antenna interface with GNSS, dedicated LNA, and dedicated SAW filter.
Figure 1 The ALEX-R5 miniature cellular module integrates low power wide area (LPWA) connectivity and GNSS technology into an ultra-small SiP form factor. Source: u-blox
In short, there is a gap in the ecosystem, and ALEX-R5 is aiming to fill that gap because standard modules with a metal case are too large for highly-portable designs such as tracking devices. That brings us to a critical issue: what are SiP’s specific design goals?
Three design goals
This design undertaking from u-blox underpins three fundamental goals: miniaturization, localization, and security. First and foremost, miniaturization, a common trend in the electronics industry, is a key driver for a new generation of IoT products like asset tracking devices. “One common goal is power consumption, as tracking devices are battery-powered; so, both hardware and software can be energy efficient by benefiting from the ultra-compact form factor of 14×14 mm,” Falcomer said.
Figure 2 The module maker says that its new SiP isn’t just an exercise in integration, but an attempt to deliver quality without compromise. Source: u-blox
The second important driver is localization with GNSS capabilities. “When you design a single chip to perform two tasks, the GNSS for localization technology suffers,” Falcomer said. “We have tried to avoid that with an architectural solution that can do both LTE and GNSS concurrently in real-time.”
The third major goal is security, so the module is built with a security foundation that features a unique and immutable device identity and robust root of trust. The company has incorporated a secure element in the cellular chipset at the production stage.
Falcomer added that a key management system is at the heart of this ready-to-use security solution: “Developers can encrypt data locally without specialized hardware to protect data sent by the module to the cloud.” ALEX-R5 also features zero-touch provisioning with cloud platforms like Amazon Web Services (AWS).
Size, power, and interface
Falcomer said that ALEX-R5 reduces the size compared to the functionally-equivalent u-blox SARA-R5 module by half.
He also said that while some modules try to reduce cost by lowering the power to 20 dBm, it can lead to compromise when the device operates in weak signal conditions. The ALEX-R5 module’s 23 dBm cellular transmission power guarantees that end devices operate effectively in all signal conditions, even at cell edges, in underground environments, and other challenging scenarios.
Next, a dedicated GNSS antenna interface enables fully-independent, simultaneous operation of the u-blox M8 GNSS chip, matching the performance of a standalone u-blox M8 module. That allows the positioning and LTE signaling chipsets carrying out real-time data tracking to work concurrently.
When it comes to a combo product with LTE and GNSS chips inside, designers have other options available in the market. Sierra Wireless’s EM9190 is a 5G NR sub-6 GHz and mmWave embedded module that integrates a GNSS receiver while supporting GPS, GLONASS, BeiDou, and Galileo satellite systems. The module is targeted at a wide range of M2M and IoT applications.
This article was originally published on EDN.
Majeed Ahmad, Editor-in-Chief of EDN, has covered the electronics design industry for more than two decades.