Arm aims to cut energy bills with new microcontroller

New Cortex M4 minicomputers could connect smart meters to household appliances to cut electricity bills

The energy cost of home appliances like washing machines and refrigerators could drop if a new microcontroller announced by Arm on Monday lives up to expectations.

Arm released the Cortex M4 microcontroller, which will be deeply embedded into appliances and devices including washing machines, smart meters and audio devices for specific functions. The M4 architecture can add more functionality and automate operation of appliances, which could help reduce home electricity bills, Arm said.

Arm licenses a range of Cortex processors, including its well-known Cortex-A line of processors for mobile devices like smartphones and low-cost computers. The M line of controllers includes a smaller, lower-power CPU and other components designed to perform specific functions in appliances, vehicles or headsets. For example, the M4 will perform functions like basic playback of audio files on headsets or timer operations in washing machines.

The microcontroller could go into devices like smart meters, which will be able to collect data over networks and process it quicker to make household appliances energy efficient, said Shyam Sadasivan, product manager of the processor division at Arm. The microcontroller operates at double the speed of its predecessor, the Cortex M3, and will be able to process complex algorithms faster, Sadasivan said.

Appliances are doing more internal computing through such minicomputers as more capabilities are added, Sadasivan said. For example, washing machines have minicomputers built in to process basic algorithms to ensure it runs at a certain time -- like during off-peak hours -- or run at a certain speed to save power. As more household devices connect to networks, smart meters will need faster microprocessors for faster data calibration and establish more network connections.

Household appliances have a number of minicomputers that help reduce energy costs, and a faster CPU certainly helps, said Michael Kanellos, senior analyst at GreenTech Media. For example, the defrost unit in current refrigerators runs at regular intervals during peak hours, which could add up to the electric bill. A small Arm M4 microprocessor with networking capabilities could help control the operation of the defrost unit more effectively, Kanellos said.

Lighting accounts for 25 percent of electricity costs in a building, followed by cooling at 13 percent, and heating at 12 percent, Kanellos said, citing the U.S. Department of Energy's study from 2008. Many people keep the lights on after leaving home, and adding a control unit with a faster CPU and networking could help shut off the lights using remote devices like cell phones.

In addition to helping cut electricity costs, the M4 will have more connectivity options built in, Sadasivan said. Arm has added support for multiple networking protocols including Bluetooth, ZigBee, Wi-Fi and Ethernet. This will help connect an array of home appliances to smart meters or the Internet, Sadasivan said.

The M4 is more energy efficient and smaller than its predecessors, Sadasivan said. For example, the MP3 decode on headsets will take just 0.5 milliwatts, which could add battery life to headsets. The smaller chip size could also add space for extra headroom on the device.

There could also be a new generation of home appliances like security monitors that will need more computing power, Sadasivan said. For security systems, the M4 will be able to compress audio and video data at faster rates that could enhance home monitoring systems.

The company will license the M4 architecture to semiconductor companies that make control units for household appliances. Chips based on the architecture could become available to partners by the end of the year, the company said.

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