The Heartbeat behind Portable Medical Devices: Ultra-Low-Power Mixed

The Heartbeat behind Portable Medical Devices: Ultra-Low-Power Mixed
 The Heartbeat behind Portable Medical Devices:
Ultra-Low-Power Mixed-Signal Microcontrollers
The proliferation of sophisticated yet affordable personal medical devices is transforming the
health care industry, enabling consumers to monitor vital signs and other key aspects of their
health at home and on the go, without costly and inconvenient visits to the doctor’s office.
According to Gartner, portable consumer medical devices, such as blood glucose monitors, blood
pressure monitors, insulin pumps and heart rate monitors, represent the fastest-growing segment
in the medical equipment market. A recent medical semiconductor report by Databeans also
projects that the home medical device segment will grow by 9 percent (combined annual growth
rate or CAGR) over the next five years.
The explosive growth of the personal medical device market stems from a variety of factors: a
steadily “graying” (aging) population requiring more frequent health monitoring, skyrocketing
costs of traditional physician-directed medical care, growing consumer awareness of the benefits
of wellness products, widespread availability of personal medical devices online and in retail
outlets, and the increasing sophistication, ease of use and affordability of these consumer health
care products enabled by continuous advances in semiconductor technology.
While consumer products are generally price sensitive, the consumer portable health market
adds other stringent requirements to be successful in the market. Above all, they must be very
reliable and accurate to prevent health problems. These requirements are regulated by
government entities such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States.
To succeed in the increasingly competitive home health care market, portable medical devices
should offer the following features:
Ease of use
Highly reliable and safe (government-regulated) operation
Easy, secure connectivity
Low-power operation (i.e., long battery life)
Support for a wide range of voltages (especially lower voltages)
High measurement accuracy
Small form factors
Affordable cost
To deliver this array of product features to consumers at economical prices, medical device
developers must reduce system cost by limiting the number of discrete components within the
design. Semiconductor suppliers also are tasked with supplying highly integrated embedded
control solutions that enable increased performance and reliability within strict power and cost
budgets. At the heart of these portable device designs are highly integrated mixed-signal
microcontrollers (MCUs) designed to deliver exceptional processing performance at the lowest
supply currents.
Silicon Laboratories, Inc. Rev 0.1 1 Ease of use is essential for all portable medical products because it reduces errors in
measurement resulting from operator error. Such devices should require minimal user interaction
for proper operation, simple user input (for example, fewer buttons and simpler software menus)
and large, easy-to-see displays (e.g., large LCDs with backlighting). To support these features,
MCUs must provide field-programmable non-volatile memory storage (typically in-system
programmable flash memory), as well as flexible I/O configurations to make the best use of
limited pins.
While many portable medical devices today simply display health monitoring results and leave the
interpretation and logging to end users and their physicians, newer devices feature simple
connectivity to log and transmit results automatically. Typically, these more sophisticated
products will connect to personal computers or mobile health appliances with software that can
track results, or they will securely transmit information wirelessly to medical professionals,
caretakers or web-based applications―a practice known as telemedicine.
The health care equipment market has adopted an optimized USB device standard, the Personal
Health Care Device (PHCD) Class, which leverages the ubiquitous USB interface to enable
standardized transmission of data and messages, regardless of device manufacturer. Moving
forward, wireless transmission of data will make connectivity even easier with simple yet reliable
wireless connections for even greater convenience. MCUs will need to provide a variety of
integrated connectivity interface methods such as integrated USB controllers with precision
Figure 1: USB Personal Healthcare Device Class Supports Easy Connectivity
RF transmitters and transceivers working in concert with MCUs can enable wireless connectivity
for telemedicine applications. In addition, wireless MCUs―highly integrated devices that combine
a low-power MCU core with a high-performance RF transceiver in the same package―are now
widely available. Silicon Labs’ Si10xx wireless MCUs, for example, provide the ultra-lowoperation required by battery-powered portable medical applications, coupled with extended
range and exceptional RF sensitivity enabled by an integrated sub-GHz transceiver.
Silicon Laboratories, Inc. Rev 0.1 2 Whatever the connectivity method or system architecture used, communication protocol stacks
will require more code space in the MCU. As a result, more memory in smaller footprint devices
will be in increasing demand.
While choices in high-performance yet low-power MCUs and communications options will be
important, all medical devices will measure some physical parameter to quantify some aspect of a
person’s health (e.g., blood pressure or oxygen levels). This requires the ability to sense and
measure light (for blood oxygen), conductivity (for blood glucose), pressure (for blood pressure)
and temperatures; and these measurements must be highly accurate and consistent. In the
health care market, there is simply no room for errors in measurement.
Mixed-signal MCUs must give superior analog voltage measurement results in the presence of
noisy digital processor and communications signals in small spaces. This is one of the most
challenging engineering problems faced by semiconductor suppliers and such specifications will
be scrutinized by product engineers, especially when faced with low battery voltages for the IC.
Measurements must be low in noise and distortion (good signal-to-noise and distortion ratios) and
highly linear. Analog-to-digital converter (ADC) operation must be allowed even when the MCU is
in operation as the end user will expect to observe functions during measurement, and it is likely
the MCU will interpret results in real-time. Furthermore, all chip features should be permitted even
at the lowest battery voltages; what good is the MCU if you cannot make a measurement over the
full battery life? In short, MCU suppliers in this market must integrate accurate analog
measurements without compromise.
The next design challenge for the MCU supplier is the demand for long battery life in the end
product. “Portable” generally means that the device is battery powered. Typically, added features
result in greater power consumption, but developers will not design a portable medical product
that requires end users to use large, heavy batteries or change them frequently.
MCUs must support three parts of a low-power strategy: low power while in active mode, low
power while in standby mode, and reduced time in an active state. The portable device, and thus
the MCU, will be in an off or lower power state most of the time; however, it will often maintain
some sort of function such as clock/calendar or alarm when not in use. While active power
consumption is important, minimizing the time awake is the key to extending battery life. MCU
designers must engineer ways to wake the MCU clock and analog circuits for fast measurements
and then allow the MCU to settle back to a low-power state. For example, making a voltage
measurement with an ADC requires a voltage reference. Such voltage references typically
require tens of milliseconds to turn on and stabilize before a measurement can be made. During
this time, the MCU is on and draining the battery.
Silicon Labs’ ultra-low-power C8051F9xx MCUs wake up in microseconds like many powerefficient MCUs, but the on-chip voltage reference is designed to also wake within 2
microseconds, allowing accurate ADC measurements to begin quickly. The ADC is also designed
to rapidly accumulate many measurements without CPU intervention for improved results while
further minimizing time awake. The less time awake, the less current is drawn on the battery
while giving good results.
Silicon Laboratories, Inc. Rev 0.1 3 Figure 2: Fast Wake Times and Short Operation Intervals will Extend Battery Life
Another important trend in MCU design involves supporting new battery use configurations and
technologies. Rechargeable batteries are popular and typically need higher voltage support, and
integrated on-chip voltage regulators are mandatory. An emerging trend is to use only one
alkaline battery to reduce product size or to save cost when the end user expects the supplier to
ship an installed battery. Until recently, this approach required the added cost and space of a
discrete dc-dc switching regulator to boost the alkaline battery voltage for proper MCU operation
(alkaline batteries have a useful life to 0.9 V). Not only do these switching regulators create a
large amount of noise in voltage measurements, they must remain on at all times to allow the
MCU to wake from sleep mode, thereby draining power and reducing battery life.
Sophisticated low-power MCUs such as Silicon Labs’ F9xx devices include an integrated dc-dc
regulator that addresses these issues. The result is lower noise, less cost, reduced footprint, and
better control allowing the dc-dc regulator to be off while the MCU is in its low-power state,
extending battery life. Even though this dc-dc regulator is integrated, it should still output the
boosted voltage supply externally to the rest of the system for a true low-power, single-battery
Silicon Laboratories, Inc. Rev 0.1 4 Figure 3: MCUs should Support a Wide Range of Voltages Supplied by Batteries
While MCU suppliers continue to innovate and integrate power- and battery-saving features, the
trend toward energy efficiency would not be fully advantageous if the cost and footprint of the
MCU grew substantially. The goal is to help the embedded developer deliver a lower cost, smaller
end product, as well as reduce power consumption. Such solutions must reduce the bill of
materials and size. The best MCUs will deliver plenty of performance, integrated connectivity,
memory and superior analog peripherals in the smallest form factors. In other words,
semiconductor suppliers must provide increased functional density without compromise.
Note the ultra-low-power MCU example below―64 kB of flash code storage, 4 kB of data RAM,
an ADC, and two voltage regulators (LDO and boost regulator) within a 4 mm x 4 mm footprint (in
in some cases even smaller). This compact mixed-signal MCU design allows a complete
measurement and interface system on a single chip without sacrificing performance or battery
life. Product designers will be careful to choose MCUs like this with just the right set of
peripherals to obtain the optimal cost/performance benefit.
Silicon Laboratories, Inc. Rev 0.1 5 Figure 4: C8051F9xx Block Diagram
Embedded developers and product managers are under continuous pressure to push the
envelope of cost, size, power consumption and performance in their next portable medical device
designs. The answer is to use highly integrated mixed-signal MCUs to deliver products to a
market that demands the very best in performance and affordability in the smallest form factors.
Functionally dense mixed-signal MCUs will provide the heartbeat for the next generation of
portable medical devices, and healthcare equipment makers that deliver optimized products that
meet consumer needs will enjoy the benefits of this fast-growing market segment.
Silicon Laboratories, Inc. Rev 0.1 6 
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