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A research project from the University of Edinburgh has created energy-efficient technology that is now included in more than 2 billion processors every year; benefitting the planet and consumers.

Professor Nigel Topham, Project Leader at the School of Informatics explains:

Embedded processors are an integral part of our everyday lives; from smartphones to wireless communications and biomedical devices. Through this research project, we have developed a processor that delivers higher performance across this broad range of devices along with greater energy efficiency and enhanced battery life.

The focus of the Embedded Processors project was to investigate new and novel methods of automating the design of embedded systems to enhance future generations of high-performance low-power digital appliances.

This project brought together project lead Professors Nigel Topham, Bjöern Franke, and Mike O’Boyle from the University of Edinburgh. With the support of the project team, IP primarily developed by Professor Topham was utilised to benefit the global technology sector and consumers alike.

Innovation in processing

Embedded computers are used in a wide range of applications from automotive control to portable media and communications devices. These typically portable systems are increasingly called upon to perform intensive tasks which only a few years ago would have been unthinkable.

The University of Edinburgh research project team looked at how it could automate the design and optimisation of embedded systems. Tools were developed which enabled the team to learn about the physical characteristics of the underlying silicon technology so it could synthesise and improve the structure of the embedded processor.

The team then looked at novel ways of automating the internal structure of processors to optimise key areas including power consumption, performance, and materials required for manufacturing.

Raising the bar

The embedded processors research project IP was applied to further enhance the EnCore processor which was developed by the University of Edinburgh School of Informatics. At the time, it was smaller and faster and used significantly less power than similar commercial chips. EnCore processors were 27% more efficient compared with other standard models and used 50% less power.

These beneficial characteristics combined with the IP developed by the University of Edinburgh project team enabled a new generation of embedded processors to be developed.

This resulted in a further extension to battery life for processors used in a range of small, low-powered, devices including MP3 players, mobile phones, and video (MPEG4) devices. This technology can also be applied to smart cards and biometric devices.

Benefitting the world

Along with the energy efficiency and functionality benefits for consumers, the derivatives of EnCore technology also deliver many advantages for manufacturers. The technology provides the potential to use one chip for many purposes and offers the capability to upgrade and extend the chip’s life reducing the rate at which devices become obsolete.

Ten of the world’s top 15 semiconductor companies are now using the derivatives of Encore or other processors using the underlying IP developed through this University of Edinburgh project in their smart devices. In total, this accounts for more than 2 billion processors being shipped every year. This is powering economies and benefitting technology users across the planet.

Professor Bjoern Franke, Co-Investigator in the project, explains:

There is now strong evidence, from our prior work and from others, that 'machine learning' can provide a fast track to explore the vast range of possible designs for both the microprocessor and its software; this is a critical requirement for efficient design of future embedded systems.

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