SiFive RISC-V processor

Community Round-Up: RISC-V Improvements, Caffe2, PCBA Visualisation, Solar Supercapacitors, Arduino Sigfox, Intel Developer Forums, IoT Requirements Guide, and the Vinduino LoRa Project

Researchers at Princeton University have helped boost the robustness of the burgeoning RISC-V architecture, having developed a tool which has picked up on data storage and retrieval ordering problems that could otherwise have derailed attempts to use it in high-reliability applications.

“Incorrect memory access orderings can result in software performing calculations using the wrong values,” explained Margaret Martonosi, leader of the team responsible for the discovery. “These in turn can lead to hard-to-debug software errors that either cause the software to crash or to be vulnerable to security exploits. With RISC-V processors often envisioned as control processors for real-world physical devices – i.e. Internet of Things devices – these errors can cause unreliability or security vulnerabilities affecting the overall safety of the systems.”

The RISC-V Foundation, which is working towards a fully-ratified specification of the open architecture by the end of the year, welcomed the team’s findings and announced the formation of a working group to address the issues. The group includes Daniel Lustig, who worked with Margaret and others on the development of the TriCheck tool used to analyse and identify memory ordering problems.

Facebook has officially launched the Caffe2 machine learning platform under a permissive licence, giving developers access to the same tools as the company uses internally for large-scale machine intelligence projects.

Machine learning is something of a hot-button topic of late, from embedded implementations in the fields of industrial automation and self-driving vehicles to machine intelligences capable of beating the best human players at games of Go and poker. Caffe2, by contrast, is a more general-purpose framework for deep-learning projects, developed for internal use at Facebook and building upon the original Caffe framework. A particularly welcome feature of Caffe2 is wide compatibility: Facebook has claimed it offers full support from single-machine deployment on embedded and mobile platforms to large-scale distributed computing on multi-GPU computing clusters.

Caffe2 is released under its own custom licence, similar to that used for the original Caffe project: Facebook, Google, and others retain the copyrights to their own contributions, but redistribution in both binary and source form, with or without modification, is permitted providing the copyright notices and licence are reproduced intact. Full details are available on the project’s GitHub repository.

PCB manufacturer Eurocircuits has released a video detailing improvements it has made in its PCBA (printed circuit board assembly) visualisation tool over the past three months of beta testing.

Building on the company’s existing PCB visualisation too, the Eurocircuits PCBA Visualiser goes a step further: as well as producing a 3D model of the circuit board itself, the PCBA Visualiser populates the board with components – meaning it’s possible to see the fit of the board in all three dimensions, before ever committing to have the design enter production. The key to this feature is a database of components whose dimensions have been verified, which Eurocircuits has been building up over the course of a three-month-and-counting beta test period in which users have been submitting jobs at a rate of around five per day.

The PCBA Visualiser, once released for general use, will join the company’s collection of utilities which includes the original PCB Visualiser, a design rules checker, and a problem solver for the most common production data issues.

The Arduino project has announced its first development board with Sigfox connectivity, marking an apparent desire to branch out into long-range low-power radio network projects.

Based on the existing MKR-family microcontroller development boards, the MKRFOX1200 is a breadboard-friendly development board based around a Microchip SAM D21 32-bit Cortex-M0+ microcontroller and Atmel ATA8520 low-power radio module. The result of the combination: an open hardware development board capable of connecting to the Sigfox long-range low-power wireless network with a power draw low enough to run from two AA batteries for up to six months.

The initial MKRFOX1200 model features compatibility with the Sigfox Radio Configuration Zone 1, making it suitable for use in Europe, the Middle East, and South Africa, and comes with a two year subscription to the network for up to 140 messages per day. International variants for other configuration zones will follow in due course. The board is priced at €35 (around £29 excluding VAT) with subscription and antenna.

For those just embarking on an Internet of Things (IoT) project Embedded Computing Design is running a series on understanding IoT requirements, including market, process, power, and multithreading considerations.

Designed for those who are new to the IoT market – or, as it was previously known, machine-to-machine (M2M) communications – the guide is the work of Cypress employees Jaya Kathuria and Anbarasu Samiappan. Its initial part acts as an introduction to the capabilities of modern microcontrollers and means of differentiating between the different models – in particular when it comes to power draw and multi-processing capabilities. The second part of the series expands on this with an overview of wireless connectivity, analogue front-end design, and touch interfaces, with both together acting as a reasonable overview of the technical considerations which need to be discussed at the start of any IoT project.

Intel has announced that it is to end its two-decade-old Developer Forum event programme, even as planning was underway for a San Francisco event later this year, in an effort to concentrate on smaller and more focused events.

First held in 1997, Intel’s Developer Conference (IDF) has long been a staple of the technical calendar for everyone from high-performance computing developers to embedded engineers. At previous IDF events, the company has unveiled technologies ranging from its Quark low-power embedded processor to its ill-fated Larrabee graphics architecture – the latter living a second life as the basis for the Xeon Phi many-core computing co-processor family. Earlier this year, the first cracks began to show with the cancellation of a planned Shanghai event; now, Intel has cancelled its San Francisco outing and confirmed that there will be no more Intel Developer Forums in the foreseeable future.

In place of IDF, Intel has committed to a schedule of smaller, more focused events which will target specific audiences – a move which could either mean better events for embedded developers or no events of interest whatsoever, depending on how Intel handles the programme for the coming few years.

The EDN Network has published a guide on the use of solar-charged supercapacitors to power sensor networks, offering an alternative to the pain of physically visiting sites to replace batteries as part of routine maintenance.

Written by Julia Leem and Jean Mars, the guide looks at how supercapacitors can act as temporary power storage for solar cells – used either outside in direct sunlight or indoors harvesting power from artificial lighting – in order to run wireless sensor networks with no permanent battery. In the guide’s second part, the pair include case studies for Bluetooth-based indoor sensors powered by a small supercapacitor and and outdoor GPRS-based sensor network using a larger supercapacitor. In the latter case, the power provided from the supercapacitor is enough to transmit two-second GPRS bursts – enough for an SMS message – every half hour.

Finally, Electronic Design has a write-up of the Vinduino project which uses low-power moisture sensors linked to a LoRaWAN wireless network to vastly reduce the amount of water used in farming.

The brainchild of Reinier van der Lee, the Vinduino is designed to provide low-cost wirelessly-connected soil moisture sensors for dense deployment. Where rival sensor systems are used to trigger weekly irrigation systems, the Vinduino units are designed to be embedded at multiple soil levels and trigger shorter daily irrigation sessions – reducing, Reinier claims, the amount of water required for irrigation by around 25 per cent through making better use of the soil’s ability to retain the liquid. Each Vinduino sensor links to a central LoRa gateway, which supports a range of six miles – allowing one gateway to support several fields.

While Vinduino was created for the needs of vineyards, it has potential for any agricultural system reliant on automated irrigation. Full details of the project, which is licensed under the GNU General Public Licence, are available on the GitHub page.




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