Low-power flagship for artificial intelligence

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SMARC based platforms based on the NXP i.MX 8M Plus processors are an ideal fit for embedded AI applications. Equipped with an extensive ecosystem with application-ready 3.5-inch carrier board, Basler cameras, and AI software stack, fast proof of concept is possible says Martin Danzer Loncaric is director of product management at congatec AG.

Implementing Arm technology hasn’t always been so easy. Previously, it was usually much more difficult to use the latest processor technology from the Arm environment as a finished system than to implement the x86 environment. However, with a modular approach based on the SMARC computer-on-modules specification, it is now also possible to obtain standard form factors from the x86 box PC range with ARM processors. For example by a 3.5-inch board that can be equipped with SMARC 2.1 modules as required. With each launch of a new SMARC module, the portfolio of possible configurations is automatically expanded with a slight time lag. The latest flagship processor is the new NXP i.MX 8M Plus processor.

Attractive features

Technical highlights of the SMARC modules with i.MX 8M Plus processor are the four powerful Arm Cortex-A53 processor cores with the additional neural processing unit (NPU), which adds up to 2.3 TOPS of AI computational power. Thanks to the integrated image signal processor (ISP), they are specifically interesting for AI inference and machine learning applications and can process the data of the two integrated MIPI CSI interfaces very efficiently.

BU2: Block diagram of the NXP i.MX 8M Plus processor module

In addition, real-time control is possible via the Cortex-M7. And via Gigabit Ethernet with time-sensitive networking (TSN). For the first time, high data security and reliability are ensured by the in-line ECC function of the processor, which can implement error correction code based on LPDDR4 memory for up to 6 GB of capacity. The Cortex-M7 can also be used as a fail-safe unit, which is crucial for customer applications to be designed with fault tolerance in accordance with IEC 61508/IEC61511.

If engineers look at this all-round service package and implement further application-specific functions via PCIe Gen 3 as well as 2x USB 3.0 and 2x SDIO, they have a highly reliable and robust Linux, Android, or FreeRTOS platform, which, depending on the variant, can even be used in the industrial temperature range of -40 °C to 85 °C. The low energy consumption of 2–6 W and the onboard eMMC with storage capacity of 128 GB and ability to be operated in robust pSLC mode to extend the service life of the robust memory even more are other attractive highlights.

BU3: congatec A 3.5 inch carrier board for SMARC modules simplifies application development

Diverse application areas

SMARC modules with i.MX 8M Plus platform are thus focused on reliable industrial applications in combination with embedded vision, machine learning, and AI as well as advanced multimedia applications. They thereby target Industry 4.0/IIoT, visual inspection and monitoring systems, and smart infrastructures and smart cities. Other applications can be found in agriculture and construction as well as in building automation and measurement technology. The target markets are thus extremely diverse.

Industry 4.0 applications with real-time networking

BU5: congatec will now also equip its application-ready embedded vision kit with the new SMARC 2.1 conga-SMX8-Plus module with i.MX 8M Plus processors.

Thanks to the standardised feature set new SMARC modules with processors from the i.MX8 M Plus platform offer numerous attractive features for real-time control of safety-critical applications and networked Industry 4.0 systems such as robots or autonomous logistics vehicles. These begin with the integrated watchdog, which can be used for failure detection in redundant machine control systems. Distributed edge systems with real-time synchronisation can also be established via the real-time clock and the TSN-capable Gigabit Ethernet port. For example, in networked manufacturing cells or the process industry.

The NXP TrustZone offers a secure execution environment for enhanced protection against cyberattacks, the risk of which increases through networking. This is based on an encryption module (CAAM) for hardware-accelerated ECC and RSA encryption, the Resource Domain Controller (RDC) for the isolated execution of critical software, and the secure High Assurance Boot mode, which prevents execution of unauthorised software during the boot procedure.

With COM & carrier to customer-specific design

SMARC modules like all computer-on-modules are also attractive for developers without a standards based 3.5-inch board because application-ready carrier boards are often already available and the SMARC modules can be used right on these customer systems. This practically eliminates the hardware development, which also significantly accelerates the software development and ultimately leads to a faster time to market. In the further course of the product life cycle, performance variants can also be created through simple replacement of the module, and for extremely long-term availability, it is possible to switch to the next generation at a minimal NRE cost when a processor is discontinued. Ultimately, this means that the ROI can be significantly extended.

List of all SMARC modules from congatec

For this reason, COMs have also assumed a leading position in the market for embedded computer boards and systems. Many embedded vendors offer an extended availability of 15 years for SMARC modules with NXP i.MX 8M Plus processor.

The author is Martin Danzer Loncaric is director of product management at congatec AG.

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