Boards, Chips, and Drones from CES 2016

Computers & Mobile Connected Home Drones Internet of Things
Boards, Chips, and Drones from CES 2016


CES is over for another year and it was a down year for the show — most commentators agree that nothing groundbreaking happened. We haven’t come away from the week with the world changed. But after picking through the many press releases and demos on the show floor, as always, I’ve found there’s still too many interesting things going on to mention it all.

Perhaps the most obvious trend at CES this year, at least for me, was the continued peace dividend from the smart phone wars. As Chris Anderson likes to say, “when giants battle, we all win,” and as always, wining inevitably comes in the form of thin wafers of silicon.


Two chips that caught my eye are the Broadcom BCM43012, a low power dual Wi-Fi and Bluetooth chip, aimed directly at the wearables and the Internet of Things, and the PNI SENtrace ASIC, a chip designed to do dead-reckoning and aimed squarely at the increasingly competitive indoor location market.

The Broadcom BCM43012 is their entrant into the growing dual radio market. Designed to integrate Wi-Fi into platforms that have traditionally been powered by Bluetooth alone — due either to physical limited battery size, or constrained power budgets — Broadcom claims that in some applications the chip consumes 8% less power in Wi-Fi mode than most current Bluetooth solutions.

I’m going to be interested to see how the BCM43012 measures up to the Espressif System’s upcoming ESP32 chip, the big brother of the ESP8266, which also supports both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and may well be seen as the more Maker-friendly option.

The PNI Sensor Corporation’s Sentrace ASIC works with accelerometers, gyroscopes, and magnetometers, as well as optionally a barometer, to carry out dead-reckoning calculations. Combining the sensor readings with available beacon detections in a “signal of opportunity” mode, and using smart-divergence algorithms to sense errors caused by sensor drift, the chip can vastly extend battery life for wearables by reducing — or even eliminating — the need for power-hungry GPS readings, or the use of other radios. Maybe even without the privacy implications raised of large scale beacon deployments, like the one at CES this year.


With the chips came boards, and the first sighting in public of the Beaglebone Enhanced from SanCloud. The “Enhanced” is the first new board based around the open hardware design of the Beaglebone Black since the arrival of the Beaglebone Green from SeeedStudio back in May last year at Maker Faire Bay Area.

Quietly announced back in November the board uses the same form factor as the Black, but has three additional USB ports, a 6-axis MEMS gyroscope/accelerometer, with the possibility to fit a 9-axis MEMS gyroscope/accelerometer/magnetometer, as well as a barometer and a temperature sensor.

The Beagle Enhanced (image courtesy of SanCloud)
The Beagle Enhanced with the optional W-Fi and Bluetooth daughter board. Photo courtesy of SanCloud

The Beaglebone Enhanced will also ship with a Wi-Fi and Bluetooth daughter board which you can plug into the exposed USB header block — sacrificing one of your three USB ports in exchange for wireless capabilities.

But the Beaglebone wasn’t the only Maker board at CES. In job lots of 5, 10, and 100 board clusters, the Raspberry Pi also made an appearance curtesy of Picocluster.

I have my own pocket cluster of Raspberry Pi 2 boards. It started off as a 4-node cluster and now has 8 nodes. It’s big enough for what I want, which is as a testbed for some distributed computing work I’m doing. The small cluster sitting on my desk lets me test code out before deploying jobs to the much more extensive, and expensive, cluster I’m using for grunt work.

However, it’s interesting to see clusters of small, relatively low-powered boards like the Raspberry Pi. In other words capable computing, the idea that our computing is reaching the stage where it’s “good enough,” is being taken seriously at a show like CES.

Perhaps I should have commercialised my own 4-node Raspberry Pi cluster build?

A 100-node cluster of Raspberry Pi 2 boards (image curtesy of Picocluster)
A 100-node cluster of Raspberry Pi 2 boards. Photo courtesy of Picocluster

Also on show sharing the Picocluster booth at CES was the PINE A64, a $15 quad-core 64-bit 1.2GHz computer with 512MB of RAM. With two weeks still to run on their Kickstarter, the PINE A64 is well on its way to crossing the $1 million mark before its funding period closes.

Considering the relationship between the two companies I’d also expect Picocluster to start marketing small clusters using the PINE A64 board soon after it ships to its Kickstarter backers. This will add 64-bit support, and a considerable increase in processing capacity compared to their current Raspberry Pi based clusters.

The Internet of Things

Predictably the Internet of Things was big this year, with the bigger manufacturers still not knowing exactly how to handle the integration of networking and sensors into products intended for the home. Building on the failure of last year’s smart washing machine, this year LG introduced a smart fridge that opens itself when you walk in front of it. No, I’m not sure why either.

However Amazon’s $100 million Alexa Fund seems to be paying dividends with a stealth takeover of the show, in which a large number of third-party manufacturers integrated Amazon’s technology into devices ranging from cameras to cars.

The Internet of Things is coming, but is seems we may still be having trouble with things.


While the Internet of Things might well have been everywhere, this was arguably the year of the drone at CES, and the fixed-wing Parrot Disco drone was arguably the star of the show. Powered by a single rear motor with an 8-inch propellor, and weighing in at just 700 grams (~1.5 pounds) with a 45 minute battery life, the drone has a top speed of 50 mph.

Despite receiving the most love, the Parrot Disco wasn’t the only drone at the show. Intel was showing off what their $50 million bought them: the Yuneec Typhoon 4K, which can be set up in a “Watch Me” mode and instructed to follow you as you rock climb, mountain bike, or presumably order your morning Salted Caramel Mocha Latte.

But the drone that caught my eye the most was the Fleye. Currently raising money on Kickstarter, the Fleye looks more like what drones were predicted to look like before they all started to look like quadcopters. The rounded body shape protects the fans, and in many ways this isn’t a drone as we’ve known drones up till now. Instead, it is the first of a new generation of flying robots. Although, whether you call it a drone or a robot, because it weighs in at 450g (approx. 1 lb), you’ll still have to register it with the FAA if you live in the United States.

Of course, if you want to stretch the definition of what a drone is just a little bit, there’s always the Ehang quadcopter. It’s a self-stabilized autonomous quadcopter intended to carry passengers. In this case the computer, not the person in it, does the piloting. This is the flying equivalent to Google’s new autonomous car, the one they may be building with Ford, and comes without any controls.

In other words, someone may finally have gotten around to inventing the flying car, which means we now live in the future. Maybe I was wrong about nothing changing this week? Although considering current happenings, what the FAA will make of this isn’t entirely clear.

What Else is on the Horizon?

There are too many things at CES to talk about them all, and I’m sure half of you are now screaming at your monitors telling me I missed the most important thing at the show. If so, let us know in the comments. I’d love to hear about all the things that slipped under my radar.

But remember: Almost inevitably, what seems to be the biggest trend at CES usually turns out to be the least important thing at the show. If every manufacturer is screaming about the same thing, it usually turns out to be nothing. Anyone remember 3D TV? Nope, me either.

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Alasdair Allan is a scientist, author, hacker and tinkerer, who is spending a lot of his time thinking about the Internet of Things. In the past he has mesh networked the Moscone Center, caused a U.S. Senate hearing, and contributed to the detection of what was—at the time—the most distant object yet discovered.

View more articles by Alasdair Allan


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