Behind the scenes at chip firm NXP

Dutch semiconductor company NXP shows how its chips are being used in transport, medicine and smart metering during a tour of its research facility in Eindhoven
Topic: Innovation
1 of 8 Tom Espiner/ZDNet

Jeroen Keunen, a general manager at NXP, demonstrated a smart-car key designed for the BMW 7 series during a tour of the Dutch semiconductor company's research facility in Eindhoven, Holland, last week.

As well as unlocking the car, the key receives and displays information. It can show details such as the amount of fuel left in the petrol tank and the GPS data of the last known position of the car.

Despite the current economic gloom, NXP is still spending heavily on research and development. According to NXP Innovation Labs scientific director Gerard Beenker, 16 percent of the company's expenditure is used on R&D.

"That's a huge amount," Beenker told ZDNet UK. The company's research and development focuses on radio frequency identification (RFID) and near-field communications (NFC).


2 of 8 Tom Espiner/ZDNet

The car key can be tapped against a Nokia 6131 phone to transfer information between the devices. In addition, it can be fitted with a chip to enable payments at garages or to give access to buildings.

The NFC chip is powered by the point-of-sale device, rather than relying on a battery. According to Gino Knubben, the NFC car key project manager, two-factor authentication can be added to encrypt communications between the car key and a contactless point-of-sale device.


3 of 8 Tom Espiner/ZDNet

Research scientist Steven Daemen demonstrated hearing aids that use low-power chips and magnetic induction radio to communicate with each other.

With magnetic induction over a short distance, there is a low degradation of radio signal strength through the human body. This enables the hearing devices to communicate and to give a stereo effect to the wearer.

"It's important to have a bi-directional link," says Daemen. "Normal hearing devices miss a stereo effect."

Spacialisation, where sounds heard in the earphones appear to be coming from specific points in space rather than through the inside of the head, can be added via an external processor, NXP said.

4 of 8 Tom Espiner/ZDNet

Normally, near-field magnetic induction communication relies on a transmitter modulating a magnetic field, which is then picked up and demodulated by a receiver. However, the devices pictured can transfer two voices simultaneously in two directions, allowing a stereo effect.

In the devices, the two magnetic coils are tuned to resonate at a specific frequency, in this case 10.6MHz. The chip models the stereo sound on top of that frequency, according to Daemen.

 Daemen told ZDNet UK "The good thing is that [the devices] are low power, but they are limited in range."

The devices operate on batteries between one and 1.4 volts over a frequency range of  7MHz to 15MHz.

5 of 8 Tom Espiner/ZDNet

This smart-bandage strip has sensors which make frequent measurements of pressure and humidity. The pressure of the bandage can be monitored to make sure it is not too loose or tight, while humidity readings can tell a clinician if a wound is bleeding or suppurating.

The strip has two pressure sensors and one humidity sensor, plus a wireless link to a USB dongle. The dongle can be plugged into a computer to take readings from the sensors.

The strip also contains a flexible printable battery, which means patients can move easily while wearing it.

The readings can be taken offline, and then uploaded when a patient comes back in range of the dongle.

At the time of writing, the strip was not a working prototype, but was due to be within a matter of days. The working prototype is the PCB pictured above the strip, which has a flexible antenna and pressure sensors.

6 of 8 Tom Espiner/ZDNet

NXPs MiFare chips are used in numerous RFID transport card systems around the world. The cryptography on its MiFare Classic chips was cracked by researchers from Radboud University last year, while working exploit code was published by a German researcher in October.

NXP security architect Jan Brands told ZDNet UK that transport operators had been "worried" about the cracks, and had started to move up to other chips in the MiFare family.

"Systems operators were worried about the security of MiFare Classic. The systems are made to be upgraded to provide better security," said Brands. "When access gates need to be upgraded, they can be upgraded so they accept MiFare Classic and MiFare Plus cards."

The picture shows an upgrade system developed by NXP to demonstrate that transport operators can use both types of card with the same gate, by issuing MiFare Plus cards with MiFare Classic compatibility.

7 of 8 Tom Espiner/ZDNet

NXP is researching smart-metering technology that consumers can use to monitor their energy consumption.

The smart meter is at the bottom right of this device, which can provide two-way monitoring of electricity consumed and of energy sold back to the grid. The energy returned to the grid is produced by the consumer via solar panels or wind turbines.

Electricity companies also have the option to remotely disconnect the power supply if the consumer has not paid energy bills.

8 of 8 Tom Espiner/ZDNet

Jan Willem Vogel, NXP's senior director of marketing, said that the company was developing anti-tampering technology for smart-metering. Theft of electricity happens around the globe, but is prevalent among marijuana growers in the Netherlands, said Vogel.

"Energy theft is a big issue," said Vogel. "In Holland, the weed growers are stealing it."

Vogel said that offences ranged from burrowing into the physical electrical infrastructure, to using a static charge generator (ESD gun) to trigger presets on the meter.

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