Ultra-low power computing is a recurring topic on this weblog. Hey – it’s useful, it’s non-trivial, and it’s fun!
So far all the experiments, projects, and products have been with the ATmega from Atmel. It all started with the ATmega168, but since some time it’s now all centered around the ATmega328P, where “P” stands for pico power.
There’s a good reason to use the ATmega, of course: it’s compatible with the Arduino and with the Arduino IDE.
With an ATmega328 powered by 3.3V, the lowest practical current consumption is about 4 µA – that’s with the watchdog enabled to get us back out of sleep mode. Without the internal watchdog, i.e. if we were to rely on the RFM12B’s wake-up timer, that power-down current consumption would drop considerably – to about 0.1 µA:
Whoa, that’s a factor 40 less! Looks like a major battery-life improvement could be achieved that way!
Ahem… not so fast, please.
As always, the answer is a resounding “that depends” – because there are other power consumers involved, and you have to look at the whole picture to understand the impact of all these specs and behaviors.
First of all, let’s assume that this is a transmit-only sensor node, and that it needs to transmit once a minute. Let’s also assume that sending a packet takes at most 6 ms. The transmitter power consumption is 25 mA, so we have a 10,000:1 sleep/send ratio, meaning that the average current consumption of the transmitter will be 2.5 µA.
Then there’s the voltage regulator. In some scenarios, it could be omitted – but the MCP1702 and MCP1703 used on JeeNodes were selected specifically for their extremely low quiescent current draw of 2 µA.
The RFM12B wireless radio module itself will draw between 0.3 µA and 2.3 µA when powered down, depending on whether the wake-up timer and/or the low-battery detector are enabled.
That’s about 5 to 7 µA so far. So you can see that a 0.1 µA vs 4 µA difference does matter, but not dramatically.
I’ve been looking at some other chips, such as ATXmega, PIC, MSP430, and Energy Micro’s ARM. It’s undeniable that those ATmega328′s are really not the lowest power option out there. The 8-bit PIC18LF25K22 can keep its watchdog running with only 0.3 µA, and the 16-bit MSP430G2453 can do the same at 0.5 µA. Even the 32-bit ARM EFM32TG110 only needs 1 µA to keep an RTC going. And they add lots of other really neat extra features.
In terms of low power there are at two more considerations: other peripherals and battery size / self-discharge.
In a Room Node, there’s normally a PIR sensor to detect and report motion. By its very nature, such a sensor cannot be shut off. It cannot even be pulsed, because a PIR needs a substantial amount of time to stabilize (half a minute or more). So there’s really no other option than to keep it powered on at all times. Well, perhaps you could turn it off at night, but only if you really don’t care what happens then :)
Trouble is: most PIR sensors draw a “lot” of current. Some over 1 mA, but the most common ones draw more like 150..200 µA. The PIR sensor I’ve found for JeeLabs is particularly economical, but it still draws 50..60 µA.
This means that the power consumption of the ATmega really becomes almost irrelevant. Even in watchdog mode.
The other variable in the equation is battery self-discharge. A modern rechargeable Eneloop cell is quoted as retaining 85% of its charge over 2 years. Let’s assume its full charge is 2000 mAh, then that’s 300 mAh loss over 2 years, which is equivalent to about 17 µA of continuous self-discharge.
Again, the 0.1 µA vs 4 µA won’t really make such a dramatic difference, given this figure. Definitely not 40-fold!
As you can see, every microamp saved will make a difference, but in the grand scheme of things, it won’t double a battery’s lifetime. There’s no silver bullet, and that Atmel ATmega328 remains a neat Arduino-compatible option.
That doesn’t mean I’m not peeking at other processors – even those that don’t have a multi-platform IDE :)