Integration innovation: Low power, high function

Photo credit: Yves Clement/Photo Features

Today, the common wrist watch has become a much more sophisticated piece of technology, capable of capturing information about the wearer’s health, activity level, and even sleeping patterns. The growing popularity of wireless devices such as this reflects the successful integration of two entirely distinct classes of hardware: information storage systems and motion-detecting sensors.

For an electronics engineer, making that marriage work on such a small physical platform is difficult enough, but that challenge is increased by the need for circuitry that can function around the clock while using very little power. There is a confusing array of integrated circuits on the market touted as “low power” but with actual consumption rates that can vary by as much as two orders of magnitude. Companies that pick the wrong version could wind up with products requiring much more frequent re-charging, inconveniencing customers and leaving them unsatisfied.

Jean-Samuel Chenard became familiar with this and many other challenges as a graduate student at McGill University more than a decade ago, where his work on sensor networks and systems architectures anticipated today’s smart, connected world. By the time he graduated in 2010, he was actively consulting with clients developing integrated technologies, from aerospace and vehicle applications to wearables.

The prospect of turning this work into a full-time business inspired him to create a company in 2010, Motsai Inc. The company, which he leads, offers its clients a broad portfolio of services, from technical consulting and R&D to design, development, manufacturing and product testing and certification. Motsai has established a niche on the cutting edge of sensor network platforms in wearable devices, as well as in the even more promising frontier of connected appliances — the so-called “Internet of Things”.

“There’s a lot of buzz about connected objects, which is the new marketing term for sensor networks, which we were exploring back in 2002,” he says. “It will definitely change the way we build products in the long term.”

He credits CMC Microsystems and Canada’s National Design Network with giving him a firm foothold in this rapidly expanding market. He recalls his early days at McGill, when the network provided workstations with micro-controller kits that he and his colleagues used as the basis for a wide range of experiments.

“A lot of the concepts that form the basis of today’s technologies, such as low power and miniature receivers, were being promoted by CMC back in 2003,” he says. “We used those kits to understand the architecture, and to learn how to build our own prototypes. CMC provided us with hardware and documentation that gave us the deep understanding we needed to go as far as we wanted to go.”

This work resulted in a key publication on the design of wireless nodes with printed antennas, where Chenard pointed to a way of addressing the demand for cost-effective, mass-produced mobile devices with minimal energy requirements.

His research also benefited from CMC access to one especially powerful tool, the Berkeley Emulation Engine (BEE), a modular, scalable platform that allowed him to explore a number of different highperformance applications, including cognitive radio systems and computer architecture simulations.

“We used it to model network-on-chip behavior, and we used it as a reference machine for programmable systems,” he says.

The knowledge gained from those early projects provided a solid footing that is now enabling his company to succeed. “The tools provided were industry standard, the best on the market, and they showed us what industry needed,” he says. “The designs that we did in the early 2000s are translating today to commercial products.”

Students have also benefited from this work. One of his most highly cited papers, published in 2008, was based on a course and related laboratory setup that he and his supervisor, Zeljko Zilik developed, showing students how to design wireless, mobile systems. “The course has trained hundreds of students, and those students used circuit boards designed for the course using a Mentor kit provided by CMC.”

Looking back on this very busy part of his career, Chenard confesses that it was also a great deal of fun. After founding Motsai he started branching into disciplines that were entirely new to him, such as the legal and financial details of maintaining a successful business. He found that expertise with others who joined the firm, which now has 12 employees and continues to grow.

In the meantime, he remains grateful to CMC for allowing him to nurture his own expertise, which laid the foundations of this enterprise.

“CMC provided me with a 10-year lead on learning about all that technology,” Chenard concludes, adding that he hopes to see the network provide a similar advantage to the next generation of entrepreneurs like him.

August 2017

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