El Segundo, Calif. — Huge growth is predicted for sensor hubs that offload tasks from application processors and let mobile devices run longer on a single battery charge thanks to the global microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) market, according to IHS Technology. Shipment growth in 2014 alone will be in the triple digits.
Worldwide shipments of sensor hubs in 2014 is forecast to reach 658.4 million units, up 154 percent from 259.6 million units last year. Over the forecast years of 2011 to 2017, the market is expected to increase 1,300 percent to reach 1.3 billion unit shipments.
“A sensor hub is a low-power processor that can be used to perform calculations on data from sensors, the hub thereby saving power on a device by off-loading such tasks from the power-intensive application processor,” said Marwan Boustany, senior analyst for MEMS & sensors at IHS, in a statement. “The use of sensor hubs is increasingly crucial because of the push for ‘always on’ sensors used for activity monitoring, voice-command operation and contextual awareness.”
With the increased use of sensors in handsets and tablets, the need for a low-power solution becomes even more critical, according to Boustany. “By centralizing sensor processing in a more efficient way through sensor hubs, power usage and battery life are optimized.”
The biggest supplier of sensor hubs last year was Atmel, with 32 percent of total industry shipments, followed by Qualcomm with 29 percent market share, and NXP with 24 percent share. Other significant suppliers include Texas Instruments, Rohm Semiconductor, STMicroelectronics, InvenSense, and Nvidia.
The report, “Motion Sensors Report – Handsets and Tablets – 2014,” from the Semiconductor & Components service of IHS, covers the three different approaches for centralized processing in a sensor hub, including the advantages and tradeoffs in cost or performance.
One approach uses an external hub, typically a dedicated microcontroller (MCU). Another method uses a low-power sensor hub as part of an application processor. This integrated approach has advantages compared to the discrete MCU format, reducing additional chip-design efforts and eliminating the need for additional components, but it can’t compare to the low power delivered by MCUs, said IHS. A third method to implement sensor hubs is by combining a low-power processor—typically an MCU—and one or more sensors, typically an accelerometer and gyroscope, said IHS.
However, there are two other ways on the radar screen, including a field-programmable gate array (FPGA)-based sensor hub that allows for a very low-power solution that can also be redesigned; and a GPS-chipset-based sensor hub that offers location-tracking-related functions in addition to motion-sensor processing, said IHS. These formats are expected to be only niche segments over the next four years.
“Overall, the MCU approach will be the best-performing, most flexible solution for high-end handsets and tablets for several development generations to come,” stated Tom Hackenberg, senior analyst for MCUs & microprocessors at IHS.
However, the application-processor-based approach is expected to be the most convenient for handset and tablet suppliers, used in mid- to high-end range of handsets, by itself and in combination with one of the other sensor hub implementations as part of a layered solution, said IHS.
Similarly, the combined processor and sensors approach could also be used in mid- to high-end handsets due to its potential for very low-power operation, by itself or in combination with a different sensor hub implementation.
“In whatever format, low-power sensor hubs are absolutely critical to supporting the expansion of sensors and other low-power capabilities in mobile and other applications, such as wearable electronics,” Hackenberg added.