Interview conducted by Kal Kaur
Michel Durr, Analog & RF Imaging IC Design Program Manager talks to AZoNano about impulse radio ultra-wideband circuits for measuring distances within centimeters of accuracy.
BeSpoon, a fabless semiconductor company, and CEA-Leti, a French national research institute, have demonstrated an IR-UWB (impulse radio – ultra-wideband) integrated circuit able to measure distances within a few centimeters’ accuracy. They have established a world-record operating range at 880m (standard regulation) and 3,641m (emergency situations). Michel Durr – Analog, RF & Imaging IC Design Program Manager at Leti – discusses this successful collaboration.
KK - Please can you provide a brief introduction to CEA-Leti?
MD – CEA-Leti is focused on innovation and value creation through technology transfer to industry. We specialize in nanoelectronics, and micro- and nanotechnologies and their applications in wireless devices & systems, and biology & healthcare, as well as in microsensors, photonic devices, imagers and security solutions.
Leti operates 8,000m² of state-of-the-art cleanroom space on 200mm and 300mm wafer platforms. It employs 1,700 scientists and engineers, including 320 Ph.D. students and 200 assignees from partner companies. Leti owns more than 2,200 patent families.
The chip jointly designed by BeSpoon and Leti features a full-blown IR-UWB CMOS-integrated transceiver that is able to perform accurate distance measurements. The standalone chip (RF front-end and digital base band) is designed for a straightforward integration within embedded systems.
KK - What are the advantages of IR-UWB?
MD – The principle of operation is relatively simple even though developing this technology is quite challenging. This radio measures the time of flight of an ultra-wideband impulse signal with a precision of 125 picoseconds, allowing distance measurement with a high accuracy of a few centimeters. Because of the wide spectrum, this radio offers a strong robustness against fading signal due to walls or people passing by. This also allows localization in indoor environments, where other techniques would fail.
KK - What are the challenges to developing the technology?
MD – The difficulty is linked to the ability to design and control a chronometer that is accurate enough to allow a few centimeters’-range localization. And once it’s under control, you have to integrate this solution into a compact and low-cost chip. The BeSpoon/Leti solution is standalone; it integrates a highly sensitive UWB radio with the digital processing circuitry, around an innovative architecture.
KK - What are the potential applications of IR-UWB?
MD – The ability to track items or individuals within a few centimeters’ accuracy opens a broad range of potential applications in various domains like consumers, industry, health, etc., and ranging from everyday life to critical situations. For example, we might never lose our keys or our laptop battery charger, again. More significantly, the system also could be used to locate firemen inside a burning structure.
KK - What brought Leti and BeSpoon together for this collaboration?
MD – Leti acquired a strong background on UWB by working on this area for 10 years before collaborating with BeSpoon. We initiated our first research program on UWB in 2000, and were rapidly inspired by this technology as a promising one for low-power communication, and localization. BeSpoon was looking for a technology to address the market for accurate localization, believing that GPS’s potential would be completed by an efficient indoor solution.
KK - So, each of you had distinct roles?
MD – Yes, that’s true. Leti is a diversified research center where you can find signal processing, digital, analog, RF, antennas, and architecture competencies, just to focus on microelectronic design. We accumulate broad experience through our strategic research choices, and our mission is to transfer this intellectual property and these innovative technologies to industry. But our goal is not to create a product or address a specific market; this is the role of companies like BeSpoon.
The company has a vision, which is based on its experience in the mobile communications market. With its market awareness and its focus on different applications for its technology, the company knows how to drive our technological expertise to a mass-market product in term of specifications, consumption, aspect ratio and cost. BeSpoon knows how to implement the IR-UWB technology in significant daily applications, and focus on pushing it to market.
KK - What kinds of companies typically work with CEA-Leti?
MD – Start-ups, fabs, fabless companies, industrials and SMEs work with Leti in short- and long-term collaborations to explore research areas or to push a solution to market. Our organization is designed for flexibility, so we can work with partners of all sizes, technology needs and business goals. In our view, this is the best way to successfully transfer innovation to companies and, thus, to markets.
KK - Like with this world record?
MD - Yes, we’re proud of it! Through this collaboration, BeSpoon and Leti leveraged our R&D efforts into a nice result: a world record distance measurement with 3,641m in emergency situations, and 880m in standard situations. This record demonstrates that IR-UWB technology is well suited for accurate indoor localization applications. And it’s now designed for a straightforward integration within smartphones. This will be in your pocket tomorrow.
About Michel Durr
Michel Durr received an engineering degree in electronics from ENSERG, Grenoble, France, in 1984. He started his career as digital ASIC design engineer and project leader at Thomson CSF Semiconductor for space, military and avionic applications in Grenoble and Paris. In 1993, he was responsible for the digital ASIC design team handling about 20 designs per year.
In 2000, he managed Atmel’s central digital design activity, working on various applications, such as CMOS imager, fingerprint ICs and RF transceivers. In 2003, Michel headed Atmel’s RF and mixed-signal design team developing RF products in the ISM band (< 1 GHz), and sensor data-acquisition ASICs for industrial and automotive markets. In 2008, at e2v, he managed the high-speed data converter team, developing state-of-the-art multi-giga-sample ADCs and DACs. He joined Leti in 2010 as program manager in the field of analog, RF and imaging IC design.