Qseven COMs take healthcare mobile

3Increasing numbers of patients, shrinking numbers of physicians, and rising costs are pushing the medical field further into the age of telehealth. Unlike traditional clinical platforms, however, telemedicine demands portability, flexibility, and long lifecycle support from Small Form Factor (SFF) technologies. Targeted at low-power mobile applications, Revision 2.0 of the Qseven Computer-On-Module (COM) specification added support for ARM CPUs and defined a "micro" form factor, making it good Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) medicine for next-generation telehealth systems.

Go to doctor’s office. Wait. See Primary Care Physician. Get tested. Wait. Get referred to specialist. Get retested. Wait. Get referred to another specialist. Wait. See how much insurance covers. Pay accordingly.

This is just one example of why telehealth strategies are poised to revolutionize medicine. Telehealth not only provides quick access to specialists, but can also remotely monitor patients and reduce clinical expenses. Many of the systems needed to realize these benefits will operate on the edge, and require technology with the portability and price point of commercial mobile platforms, as well as the flexibility to perform multiple functions securely and in real time. All of this must be provided in a package that can meet the rigors of certification and scale over long lifecycle deployments.

“If it is a mobile application with low to medium computing performance requirements, then Qseven is the right choice,” says Christian Eder, Marketing Manager at congatec AG headquartered in Deggendorf, Germany (www.congatec.com). “Medical systems typically require special functionalities such as ultrasonic control or high levels of isolation in order to protect patients in case of a malfunction. Standard SBCs typically do not feature that. The logical consequence is to create a custom carrier board that takes all specific functionalities and complete it with a standard COM. Once this combination is certified, it is quite easy to upgrade or scale to other CPUs while the certification remains or just needs to be updated. This provides a lot of freedom to choose the best-fitting CPU and graphics for a given application.”

“Qseven was defined from scratch for mobile and carries no old legacy interfaces,” Eder continues. “The maximum power consumption for Qseven is defined at 12 W – the first definition for COM Express defined a 188 W maximum – this example clearly shows the thinking behind the specification.”

Qseven supports power management features and requires only a 5 V power supply, making it well suited for battery-run applications. Recent updates to the specification also introduced a reduced form factor module and extended support for mobile processors, increasing the specification’s viability for low-power, portable applications.

“Revision 2 of the Qseven specification allows for even smaller modules, taking into account the future will bring more highly integrated, powerful single-chip CPUs,” Eder says. “The 70 mm x 40 mm µQseven is about half the size of the regular Qseven (Figure 1). With support for USB 3.0, it is possible to get a really fast transfer rate to mobile devices. The major improvement with Revision 2 is full support of ARM CPUs to allow the mixed use of x86 and ARM modules with the same carrier board.”

Figure 1: Revision 2 of the Qseven specification defined the 70 mm x 40 mm µQseven form factor, which is nearly half the size of the original 70 mm x 70 mm Qseven module.
(Click graphic to zoom by 1.9x)

Qseven scalability

The ability to transition between x86 and ARM processors is critical for low-volume medical applications because a single carrier board – often the most costly component of a COM architecture – can suit the needs of both graphics-intensive systems and platforms that require more mobility and lower power. In addition to reducing Time-To-Market (TTM), this decreases Bill Of Materials (BOM) costs and eases Board Support Package (BSP) implementation, says Christoph Budelmann, General Manager, Budelmann Elektronik GmbH in Münster, Germany (www.budelmann-elektronik.com).

“Scalability is a key factor, especially for lower volumes, and the Qseven standard offers the possibility to use the same baseboard with different processors depending on the user’s needs,” Budelmann says. “Some users only need a small control unit and prefer a simple ARM processor, whereas other customers want to implement large screens and need the graphical power of an x86 system. Of course, this can also be the case in medical applications. Even if the baseboard has to be adapted to very special demands, this is less complex than switching from a pure ARM platform to an x86 platform or vice versa. In the majority of cases, only some drivers, such as Ethernet PHY, have to be exchanged whereas the real application software can remain the same.”

“It might sound curious, but maybe the most important part of a COM is a good software support,” Budelmann continues. “The best hardware is useless if there is no BSP, or if the supported software is outdated. Writing the BSP on your own is normally too expensive and time consuming, so users should regard this important point when identifying and evaluating new COMs.”

Qseven (software) support

“Bringing up an Android or Linux BSP is non trivial,” says Ravi Kodavarti, Senior Director of Business Development and Strategy at Inforce Computing, Inc. in Fremont, CA (www.inforcecomputing.com). “Say our application has a 6440 carrier board, and on top of it we put a Qseven COM (Figure 2). However, Wi-Fi is really on the COM and the GPS chip is on the COM as well. These are well-tested interfaces not just from a hardware standpoint but also from a software standpoint, and writing these drivers and bringing these up is a pain. Every time you want to do that on a custom board, it is reinventing the work.”

Figure 2: The IFC6400 is a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro-based Qseven module that supports Android and Linux OSs.
(Click graphic to zoom)

“Qseven does make it easier to design with because bringing up an Android system is not easy, contrary to popular opinion. Everybody has an Android system but those also drive a significant amount of volume in mobile and they put a lot of investment and people to make that happen. You cannot really do that in other spaces. Bringing up a stable platform is very important, and just having that modular architecture makes it so you do not really have to go and change things around too much.”

The Qseven specification supports Windows Embedded, Linux, and other Real-Time Operating Systems (RTOSs) on x-86 modules, and Windows Embedded and Linux for ARM. Although Windows initially drove medical segment, some users now prefer Android OSs because they can create custom apps, it is easy to find Android developers, there are no licensing fees, Kodavarti adds.

Qseven sustains

Removing legacy I/O and tracking advances in mobile technology have positioned Qseven to provide the long lifecycle support that telehealth systems demand. In an SFF market full of options, this will be critical to the platform’s success.

“Due to the fact that medical is looking for long-term support because of very long lifecycles, the Q7 form factor has found a good niche in the industry,” says Fabio Lanini, USUK Area Manager at SECO srl out of Arezzo, Italy (www.seco.com). “It provides long-term support and flexibility so that customers can move forward with different solutions or processor architectures based on their long-term needs. With the Qseven form factor we have a lot of potential.”