Colombia is about to make its mark in technology.

Onchip, a research group focused on integrated systems at the Universidad Industrial de Santander, is working towards the first system-on-chip designed in Colombia. Aiming to contribute to the growth of the open source community, it is designing a 32-bit microcontroller based on the RISC-V instruction set. The 2mm x 2mm chip will be made in a 130nm process and aims to be the equivalent of commercial microcontrollers implemented with an ARM M0 core.

The group recognised how licensed instruction sets and microprocessor cores restrict the process of modifying a core for performance or adapting it to specific applications. They saw the RISC-V architecture aimed to support research, education and an emerging developer community.

Power and area simulations show that a RISC-V architecture can be used to replace an ARM M0 microcontrollers with similar performance. The 32-bit RISC-V based microcontroller (mRISCV) from Colombia aims to pave the way for future implementations of both general and application-specific chips that provide open source hardware for the Internet of Things.

mRISCV boards Figure 1: Onchip plans to release late next year 1,000 developer boards stamped out as puzzle pieces targeting students. (Source: Universidad Industrial de Santander)

Krste Asanović and David Patterson from UC Berkeley have reported on RISC-V processors capable of running Linux. However, to date there has not been any reported work of a small footprint RISC-V core with peripherals that can replace low-end commercial microcontrollers.

The mRISCV includes:

  • AXI4-Lite and APB buses for linking the core to peripherals
  • A Serial Peripheral Interface (SPI)
  • An 8 I/O GPIO module
  • A SAR 10-bit analog-to-digital converter
  • A 12-bit digital-to-analog converter

A master SPI can monitor the status of the peripherals while the microprocessor is still executing programs. The group also will implement a microcontroller using an interconnect supporting the AMBA protocol family.

Professor Elkim Roa, head of the Onchip group, said that the final version of the microcontroller will be used in 1,000 Arduino-compatible development boards. They will take the shape of puzzle pieces distributed free to primary and secondary in Colombia with full documentation on how into hack the chip.

The 23-member team in Colombia involves grad students with job experience in semiconductor companies such as Samsung, Freescale, NXP and Semtech. Their work is supported by the government and the university with an investment of $1 million in equipment to characterise and test chips.

The group is collaborating with other researchers around the world, including a team from Cambridge. Together they received funding from the Royal Academy of Engineering to boost the development of high-speed interfaces for an open source SoC capable of running Linux.

mRISCV block Figure 2: The mRISCV supports 4KB RAM and a host of peripherals and interconnects.