This week’s EYE ON NPI (video) comes to us from the brilliant wireless engineers at Nordic Semiconductor – it’s the Nordic nRF9160 System-in-Package with Integrated Cellular and GNSS.
You know them for their popular nRF52 series of microcontrollers that have integrated Bluetooth LE – they’re the market leaders for BLE development and support, with excellent software and low-power capabilities. A few years ago they decided to start branching out from their hit products and into more wireless IoT transports, like cellular and, more recently, WiFi (which perhaps we’ll cover in a future EYE ON NPI!).
The nRF91 series is the Nordic Semi flagship cellular line, but it’s different than most cell modules we’ve used.
Normally you get a modules say from Quectel, and interface to it via USB or UART – sending AT commands and parsing the responses. That’s fine and good but means that there’s often a secondary microcontroller that has to do the work, and there’s always a lot of work to do that parsing and command handling.
What we like about the nRF91 is that it comes as a cute SIP package, much smaller than most modules, and integrates an ARM Cortex M33 with 1MB of flash, 256KB of RAM that you can program directly. This is familiar to folks who use the nRF52 series, where the BLE stack is integrated in hardware/firmware through the ‘SoftDevice’ system. You get all the hardware-interfacing you need with 32 GPIO, 12-bit ADC, RTC, SPI, I2C, I2S, UART, PDM and PWM which means that ideally you can develop your entire product on a single chip without need for external peripherals or drivers.
The nRF91 comes in three flavors: nRF9160-SIAA which has only LTE-M cellular support, nRF9160-SIBA which has only NB-IOT support, and the nRF9160-SICA which has LTE, NB-IOT and GNSS. Each one has is pin-compatible but has different price levels, so pick the one that fits your budget and wireless needs.
Note there’s full 700MHz – 2.2GHz band support on each version of the SIP, so you don’t have to order different SIPs for North America, South America, Asia, Europe, Africa, etc. There are global certifications available that you can look up to make sure you are cleared to integrate in any country you may need.
The Nordic nRF9160 modules have been out for a few years, so there’s lots of development boards you can use. For example, Nordic’s in-house made dev board is fully featured with every add-on needed, plus Arduino-compatible headers.
There’s also the extremely well-named Nordic Thingy 91 which is a great dev kit for designing compact, battery powered, sensor-filled prototypes. The prior is better when you want to have JTAG headers and connect lots of external hardware, the latter is good if you happen to have some overlap with the built in hardware and want to prototype user experiences.
If you are a Feather Fancier, there’s an nRF9160 Feather that you can use to make lightweight portable designs that plug into FeatherWings.
Best of all, all three versions of the nRF91 are in stock now for immediate shipment from Digi-Key! We recommend starting with the full-featured nRF9160-SICA as you can always place the final design with one of the pared down SIAA or SIBA when you go to production. Order today for instantaneous shipment, you’ll have these in your hands by tomorrow afternoon.