A Less Costly Way to Validate Battery Life

It’s possible to calculate battery life in wireless sensor networks on a limited budget, expert says.

Charles Murray

April 12, 2018

4 Min Read
A Less Costly Way to Validate Battery Life

Validating battery life in low-power wireless sensor networks can be a challenging task requiring costly equipment, but that needn’t always be the case, a consultant will say at the upcoming Embedded Systems Conference in Boston.

Pat Weston, a partner with Better Embedded Engineering LLC, says that low-power devices are hard to characterize, making it difficult for smaller companies with limited budgets to validate products. “If you’re Apple and you’re developing wearable watches, you can afford a $30,000 tool,” Weston told Design News. “But think of the little companies. They can’t go out and spend that much on a tool. It’s out of the question.”

Pat Weston of Better Embedded Engineering LLC: “If you’re Apple and you’re developing wearable watches, you can afford a $30,000 tool. But think of the little companies. They can’t go out and spend that much.” (Source: Better Embedded Engineering LLC)

In a session titled, Design & Validation of Low-Power Wireless Sensor Networks, Weston will offer an alternative to the use of costly tools. His technique, developed while consulting in hundreds of wireless sensor network applications, enables a developer to characterize a device’s current consumption for a hardware cost of as little as $700. “It’s basically a very sensitive ammeter that measures current down to a microwatt,” he said. “It samples at a high rate, and then records and transfers the data to a PC application that can monitor what’s going on.”

During the session, Weston will also tell attendees how to deal with noise in such applications. He will explain how to choose the right components, scale them correctly, filter the power, and make sure everything is properly grounded during test.

Weston, a veteran of 40 years in the electronics industry, is intimately familiar with embedded systems design. During his career, he pioneered the implementation of microprocessors in telecommunications at Alcatel and deployed the first PCMCIA products at Intel. He was also involved in the development of Rio MP3 players.

Weston says the need for lower-cost solutions in the embedded space is growing. Validation of such low-power devices was once the exclusive province of big electronics manufacturers, but that’s no longer the case, he said. Increasingly, smaller developers need to be able to validate battery life in a wide variety of applications, especially wireless sensor networks. “Designing for low power consumption is a challenging task,” he said. “If you think a device has a battery life of five years, are you going to wait five years to release it and manufacture it? Of course not. You need some way to validate it up front.”

Weston’s PC-based technique solves the problem for some applications by matching current consumption to battery capacity, ultimately providing an accurate estimate of battery life in sensor applications ranging from refrigeration systems and vineyards to factory automation systems and data centers.

“It’s not only for wireless sensor networks,” he said. “There are a lot of applications for extended battery life equipment where this would be useful.”

The session, “Design & Validation of Low-Power Wireless Sensor Networks,” will be held at ESC Boston on April 19 at 11 a.m.   

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Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 34 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.

About the Author(s)

Charles Murray

Charles Murray is a former Design News editor and author of the book, Long Hard Road: The Lithium-Ion Battery and the Electric Car, published by Purdue University Press. He previously served as a DN editor from 1987 to 2000, then returned to the magazine as a senior editor in 2005. A former editor with Semiconductor International and later with EE Times, he has followed the auto industry’s adoption of electric vehicle technology since 1988 and has written extensively about embedded processing and medical electronics. He was a winner of the Jesse H. Neal Award for his story, “The Making of a Medical Miracle,” about implantable defibrillators. He is also the author of the book, The Supermen: The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards Behind the Supercomputer, published by John Wiley & Sons in 1997. Murray’s electronics coverage has frequently appeared in the Chicago Tribune and in Popular Science. He holds a BS in engineering from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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