Wednesday, October 04, 2017
Texas Instruments, which entered the radar sensor market only four months ago, is late to a party that includes heavyweights NXP Semiconductors, Infineon Technologies and STMicroelectronics, but nonetheless exudes confidence in its ability to gain market share.
Last month, EE Times caught up with Sameer Wasson, general manager of radar & analytic processors at TI to get a progress report. While acknowledging that automotive is the biggest market for radar chips, he noted that he is actually more excited about potential applications for TI’s radar chips. “Drones, factory floors and building automation… you name it. There are so many places our chips can go,” he said.
TI professes to be all in with mmWave sensors, whose possible applications go well beyond Wasson’s list.
The decision to get into the radar sensor business is a calculated move based on TI’s internally developed technology. He said, “TI wouldn’t have gone into the market if they thought we wouldn’t dominate the market.”
Two factors favor TI radar chips, according to Wasson. First, TI has developed the smallest footprint CMOS sensor portfolio. Second, TI’s radar sensors offer “highly accurate stand-alone sensing with less than a 4-centimeter range resolution.” When it comes to precision, Wasson said, “Nobody comes close.”
Infineon and ST have been doing SiGe- or BiCMOS-based radar products. These are said to have performance advantages at higher frequencies, and come with higher temperature tolerance. But it was NXP who first opened the door to tiny radar chips operating at 77GHz by using CMOS process technology.
While NXP and TI have both developed CMOS-based radar sensors, TI has one-upped NXP in terms of integration, said Wasson. “We offer a fully integrated CMOS single-chip solution featuring a DSP and MCU, or a single-chip with just an MCU or DSP.” NXP’s single-chip 77 GHz radar transceiver comes with neither MCU nor DSP.
TI’s broad portfolio of radar chips allows developers to choose just the right radar chip they need for their designs, according to TI, while cutting power consumption and board space by 50 percent.
More important is the “multi modal functionality” of TI's mmWave 76- to 81-GHz single-chip sensor portfolio featuring DSP/MCU. These radar chips “can dynamically adapt to changing conditions,” said Wasson, avoiding false positives and delivering ranges of sensing to multiple applications.
According to Wasson, TI researchers at Kilby Labs developed the CMOS radar technology. But he added that developing mmWave sensors for automotive wasn’t the original goal. “Just as any researchers and engineers would do, they were just tinkering. They had been experimenting with CMOS technology to see how far they can stretch it to higher frequencies such as 120 GHz or even terahertz.” TI, later, discovered that it can be used for radar chips.
Radar for drones
In the era of ADAS and autonomous cars, automotive is where the action is for most sensors. Radar chips are no exception.
But Wasson told us, “We’ve been discovering so many new applications that can take advantage of our radar chips.
Consider drones, he said. Drone vendors told TI that radar chips can be used to “detect the water surface, separate from the ground while drones try to land,” said Wasson.
Radar chips’ ability to distinguish water from dry land turns out to be also useful in the automotive world, Wasson explained. It can aid a car’s “dynamic traction control” by sensing changes in the road surface. “Radars can detect when the road gets icy,” he added.
The robust mmWave sensing ability is also effective in industrial applications for improving factory efficiency, building automation and smart infrastructure, according to TI. Radars can be also used in medical equipment, tank-level sensing and robotic vision. Naturally, the mmWave contactless sensors can be used in environments without interference from lighting, rain, dust, fog or frost, making them uniquely robust indoors or outdoors.
Today, TI is offering a new mmWave software development kit (SDK). It includes sample algorithms and software libraries that simplify RF designs, TI explained. An SDK platform is essential for engineers to start developing their applications quickly.
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