Common Prototype Mistakes

As most of us know, coming up with a great idea isn’t too difficult – it’s all in the execution.  You have a great idea – you’re going to make something that you can throw in your kids backpack so you get a text message when they arrive at school, another when they leave school, and another when they get home.  If they have a field trip that day you can send your gizmo an email that tells it to send GPS breadcrumbs every 10 minutes so you know where your child is all day long.

Easy…right?  Get a cellular modem with an embedded TCP/IP stack and GPS capability.  Connect it to a cheap micro, a LiON battery with a charging IC that runs from any 5V usb charger, write some simple code and you’re off and running.  You don’t even need a server app – just have the micro put google map links using the GPS coordinates into the body of the email and you’re good to go.  You grab some dev kits for the cell modem, microcontroller, and charging IC, string them all together and in a week you have a proof of concept system working on your desk.  Nice job!

Now it’s time to design the hardware.  You carefully follow the example schematics included with your dev kits…but you need some antennas for cell and GPS.  Hmm…your cell modem dev kit came with cable antennas that used SMA connectors – not going to work.  So, you choose some off the shelf surface mount ceramic antennas and carefully follow the layout guidelines in the data sheets.  Piece of cake – it’s going to work great.  You send the boards out for fab, buy the components from Digikey, and 10 days later you pick up 5 stuffed boards from your CM.

Now for the testing.  After verifying there are no power-ground shorts you hook up the battery and smile big when you read 3.3V on the main switching power supply.  Good job.  You plug in the programmer for the micro and cross your fingers as you watch the programming status bar creep to the right towards 100%.  Voila!  Your processor is alive and saying hello to the terminal emulator running on your PC.  The battery is even charging!  This is awesome!  Okay…let’s try the modem.  You turn on the modem and send AT<CR> and give another big smile as it sends back OK.  Your modem is alive!  You query the GPS and… wait for it… wait for it… no fix.  Damn.  You check the antenna layout and it’s exactly as the data sheet said.  The ceramic antenna is installed perfectly onto the board.  You check your dev kit setup and it’s getting a GPS fix just fine.  What could be wrong?  It’s integrated into the modem!  Hmm.

On to the cell modem.  You chose a CDMA modem so you didn’t have to deal with a SIM card and coverage is better in the US.  You type in AT#CAI? and see the base station info of the closest cell tower and -95 dBm RSSI.  Cool!  It’s working!  The RSSI isn’t great but you’re not sure how close the nearest tower is.  It doesn’t matter – it’s on the cell network!  Your modem has an AT command to send an email.  You try it and get a NO CARRIER response.  Hmm.  Wait…it’s not activated yet!  You’ve chosen the carrier with “Americas largest and most reliable network”.  They love your idea and have given you 5 development accounts provisioned as data only.  You type in your activation string, hit enter, and… your board reboots.  Hmm.  Maybe the battery is low.  Nope – fully charged.  Maybe it’s drawing more current than you anticipated.  You put a scope probe on the 3.3V bus and try again.  Reboot – but no dip on the 3.3V supply.  Hmm.  You put a scope on the reset line of the processor and try again.  Reboot.  The reset pin stays at 3.3V.

Welcome to the world of cellular M2M.  These are usually the first 2 rights of passage on the road to becoming a cellular M2M veteran.  First let’s discuss the GPS issue.  Notice that our developer used a switching power supply in the design.  They probably picked one they have used on several other designs successfully and had it all dialed in.  Well, it just happens to have a switching frequency with a harmonic that falls smack in the middle of the GPS frequency.  If you run the board from a bench supply set to 3.3V the GPS works just fine.  Choose either a fixed frequency switcher that will have harmonics outside of the GPS band or use one with an adjustable frequency that you can tune.

Okay smart guy – why does the board reboot when you try to activate the modem?  At the end of the day, it’s all about the layout.  In order for the antenna to radiate the board has to resonate properly.  In smaller products the ground plane is actually what radiates.  The antenna just tunes things up.  The point is that the RF energy is everywhere.  In our example there could be several things at work.  First, the layout should be done to minimize the number and length of traces on the top layer.  Any digital traces that do end up on the top layer should be get RF bypass caps (typically 12pF for our CDMA example).  Also, any PN junction (LEDs, FETs, etc.) should get bypass caps as well.  This will shunt any RF energy that couples into those traces to ground and prevent things like…processor reboots.  If there is the slightest mismatch between the RF port on the modem and the antenna feed the modem will think it is poor coverage and raise it’s output power making the problem that much worse.  

The lesson here is that the layout of any cellular M2M product is absolutely critical.  Just because you are using a nice neat cellular module doesn’t mean that the manufacturer has isolated you from all of the RF issues as well.  Also, harmonics can bite you when you least expect it.  Anything with a clock source should be seen as a potential spur that can effect performance.  Do the math before fabbing your boards and you will save a lot of headaches.

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