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PLSense Advances Subthreshold MCUs

December 5, 2017

Author: Bob Wheeler

A tiny Israeli startup is pushing the limits of subthreshold-voltage technology, promising to extend battery life for low-performance IoT devices. It has designed a microcontroller that reduces energy consumption relative to conventional alternatives and even undercuts shipping subthreshold products. The first production chips from PLSense, however, won’t appear until late 2018.

What sets the company’s design apart from other subthreshold implementations is its adaptive dynamic voltage control (ADVC). By embedding a power-management unit (PMU) and sensors on chip, PLSense varies the chip’s core voltage to match CPU-speed requirements and silicon-environment conditions. It also employs the body effect to adjust transistor bias on the basis of sensor feedback, boosting the signal-to-noise ratio and likely increasing manufacturing yields, too. The company even developed a custom SRAM cell that enables full operation at 0.45V.

To prove its technologies, PLSense designed the 40nm PLS10 MCU, which includes a 32-bit Synopsys ARC EM5D CPU operating at up to 80MHz. This test chip has most of the blocks expected in a low-end MCU, and the production device will fill remaining gaps. It connects directly to a battery, operating at 1.0–3.8V to cover various chemistries. Among the target applications are smart meters, irrigation, HVAC control, and security sensors.

The most established subthreshold competitor is Ambiq Micro, which brought its first-generation Apollo MCU to production in 4Q15. It has design wins in wearables, including smartwatches and fitness bands. PLSense expects its product will consume less power than Ambiq’s in low-power states and deliver greater CPU performance at its top speed.

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