Rapid prototyping platforms for embedded developers

March 16, 2016 // By Dieter Kiermaier
Driven by the demands for ever faster design cycles and increasingly complex products, embedded developers feel compelled to back the “right horse” at the earliest stage.

Discussions with companies often reveal that, driven by internal marketing and also by the apparently good availability of hardware and software solutions, highly popular community boards are used for the first prototypes, although these are often suited for true embedded solutions under very specific conditions only.

Time and again, the long-term availability of both the processor and the boards will not be guaranteed, the ECN (Engineering Change Notice) / PCN (Product Change Notification) procedure will be lacking, as will the qualification for extended temperature ranges documentation of the supply chain. Simultaneously, developers are also facing new challenges posed by increasingly complex products. These challenges comprise especially encryption technologies, driven by tightly interlinked devices, and the user interface design know-how required to meet the high user demands.

What is particularly annoying – and sometimes even critical – to a company, is the belated discovery that a selected solution will not meet the required product characteristics. When this happens after a working prototype has been developed at great expense, after schedules were announced and “industrialisation” planned, companies are often forced to return to the drawing board.

Several highly suitable platforms on the market can help companies avoid this scenario, but these are unfortunately not yet as familiar to developers as their counterparts in the maker environment. These platforms include SolidRun’s HummingBoard family (based on NXP i.MX 6 processors) and the TI processor based BeagleBoards family, to mention but a few.

A recent and particularly interesting solution is the Qualcomm Snapdragon 410 CPU based Dragonboard 410c, one of the first 64 bit ARMv8 processors, also suited for industrial applications. Thus far known in the consumer and mobile environment especially for its high-performance processors, Qualcomm is now addressing the industrial market specifically through three derivatives in its industrial Roadmap that promise longer availability than customary for mobile processors.

Along with the Snapdragon 410, the Roadmap also includes the two derivatives Snapdragon 600 and Snapdragon 820. Snapdragon 600, based on optimised Cortex-A15 cores known as Krait 300, is already available; boasting 4 Kryo cores and offering independent clocking as a special feature, Snapdragon 820 is expected at the end of the second quarter 2016.,. USB-3.1 and PCIe are also supported (chief characteristics are shown in table 1).

Table 1 - Chief characteristics of the three Qualcomm derivatives

To optimally support the developers of embedded systems in their design-in, Arrow Electronics joined Linaro Ltd. in May last year. Linaro is a non-commercial organisation aiming to bring together industrial users and the open-source community, in order to cooperate on joint projects. A 96boards form factor was defined for this purpose, to create a standard for low cost Cortex-A development platform suitable to all manufacturers.