2017 Goes Big on Tiny Electronics: A Bluetooth SoC, Satellite Communication Module, and Linux SBC

April 14, 2017 by Tim Youngblood

In the last two months, some impressively tiny systems were unveiled or released.

In the last two months, some impressively tiny systems were unveiled or released.

World's Smallest Bluetooth Chip

In early March, the smallest Bluetooth chip in the world was announced. It was designed by EM Microelectronic, part of the SWATCH Group and the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM). 

The designers managed to fit more than five million transistors on the chip's 5mm2 surface. According to the SWATCH Group, this little chip actually broke a total of three world records. First is the obvious: world's smallest Bluetooth SoC.

The second and third sound more like marketing speak, but the SWATCH Group claims the new chip to have the lowest energy consumption "compared to its competitors" and "its high-speed start-up capability is unparalleled". Since "compared to its competitors" and "capability is unparalleled" aren't units of measurement, a healthy dose of skepticism should be applied to these records.


The unnamed tiny Bluetooth chip is only 5mm2

Advertorial language aside, there's still a lot to be excited about with these chips. They aren't some isolated lab experiment where a team made the world's smallest chip so they could get into the Guinness Book of World Records. 

They are Bluetooth 5 compatible, so they are applicable for a lot of different, primarily small IoT devices and, of course, watches...classic Switzerland. They work in conjunction with sensors and microcontrollers for full smart device functionality.

The Swatch Group and CSEM want to make a completely new operating system and development platform for their new chips. If their claims about power consumption turn out to be true, these Bluetooth chips could be part of some awesome designs! There isn't much information about these chips online yet, so let me know in the comments if they release technical specifications.

World's Smallest Two-Way Satellite Communication Platform

Rock Seven's RockBLOCK satellite platform was a hit in the ocean science and marine equipment manufacturing communities because it was small, relatively inexpensive, and compatible with a lot of different platforms. The RockBLOCK 9603 was designed to be as small and light as possible and, in the process, they made the smallest satellite platform to date.

If you're not familiar with RockBLOCK, it's a tiny satellite receiver that's compatible with Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Windows, Mac, Linux, and Intel Edison. It's commonly used by scientists venturing into remote areas and autonomous seafaring robots to keep in contact to convey their findings or send an SOS if necessary.

It uses Iridium SBD (Short Burst Data...not "silent but deadly") technology to send messages of 340 bytes and receive messages of 270 bytes. The satellite message service costs around $12 a month and sending a message is about 6 cents, making exploration accessible for just about anyone.


From left to right: a Raspberry Pi Zero, the RockBLOCK 9603, an original RockBLOCK, and an Arduino UNO

World's Smallest Linux Computer

Technically, the VoCore2 is the second generation of the world's smallest Linux computer. It ran a successful Indiegogo campaign back in November 2016 and is now available to order.

The computer is a 28mm cube (a little over an inch) that has an Ethernet port, Wi-Fi, USB host, UART, an SD card slot, SPI, I2C, and 40 GPIO pins. There are a few different versions that have more RAM and memory depending on the price (starting at $4). 

Although its primary function is a "smart router" that's suited for applications like mesh networking and VPN gateways, having all those GPIO pins and being fully open-source makes it useful for a lot of different purposes. It can be programmed directly on a laptop or desktop by plugging the VoCore2 in with a USB cable.

The device, itself, sounds like it has a lot of potential for hobbies and even some professional applications. However, judging from the comments on their Indiegogo page, it seems like they are still going through some logistical growing pains.

More Tiny Electronics

Designers are always finding ways to make things smaller, so these devices probably won't hold their tiny crowns for long.

There's no website that keeps track of world records for electronics that I know of, so it's possible that there is an even smaller Linux computer or satellite antenna that I missed. If so, let me know in the comments! Are there any breakthroughs in miniaturizing electronics that have you excited? Let me know about those too!