Low Power NB-IoT on STM32 Blue Pill with Apache Mynewt and Embedded Rust
In this article we’ll learn to optimise the power consumption of the NB-IoT Sensor Application in the previous tutorial from this jagged power-hungry mess…
To these well-disciplined bars…
It’s a simple application (coded in Embedded Rust) that polls Blue Pill’s internal temperature sensor and transmits the sensor data to a server over NB-IoT.
The power optimisation (recorded with a $25 RuiDeng DPS 3005 Power Monitor) becomes more apparent when we compare the charts side by side…
From the charts above we can see the secret to long battery life is this…
Stay in Deep Sleep for as long as possible!
Our sensor device doesn’t need to transmit sensor data every second. When it sleeps for a minute or more between transmissions, the battery life is dramatically increased.
However we need to be sure that our NB-IoT module won’t become totally disconnected from the network as Blue Pill sleeps. We have the solution for that.
Can we go below 3 milliAmperes?
Yes we can! Scrutinise the photo at the top of the article… Notice that TWO power LEDs are still lit: Power LED for Blue Pill and Power LED for the NB-IoT breakout board.
The two LEDs are always lit, even during Deep Sleep. If we desolder the two LEDs, the current consumed will surely drop way below 3 milliAmperes. My colleague Upton Lai has previously desoldered the Blue Pill Power LED and recorded 10 microAmperes of power consumption in Deep Sleep! (Without NB-IoT)
But for now we’ll keep the LEDs… My intent is to let you recreate this experiment easily using off-the-shelf hardware. So that you can follow me and discover for yourself the right way to conserve power.
There’s something odd about the Current values in the charts…
Yes the charts look different from High School Physics because I rendered the charts (in Google Sheets) using a Logarithmic Scale.
This makes the chart look more scenic and poetic like a rolling hill… instead of a desolate landscape with steep mountains and treacherous crevices. And I assure you that no values have been altered. (Just check the Google Sheets)
Quectel NB-IoT Power Consumption
It’s important to power down the NB-IoT module when we have transmitted the data:
According to the documentation for the above command in “Quectel BC95-G & BC68 AT Commands Manual”…
Deep sleep mode will be entered when the system is quiescent, but only if it has been enabled by the network.
Instead of keeping our device always connected to NB-IoT, we would have to reattach to the NB-IoT network (
AT+CGATT=1) every time we wake up. Attaching to the NB-IoT network may take a few seconds, consuming 40 milliAmperes throughout.
(Mr Stefan de Lange kindly pointed out that we could attach to the NB-IoT network at power on instead of wakeup. We’ll explore that in a future article. Thanks Stefan!)
The actual NB-IoT transmission takes a split second, reaching peaks of about 400 milliAmperes.
Here’s the log from my optimised Blue Pill, chronicling the events after Deep Sleep Wakeup…
Note that we used the
NSOSTF command instead of
NSOST to send a UDP packet with flags. In my previous article we used…
Now we use…
The extra parameter
0x200 is the “Early Release” flag… It tells the NB-IoT network that we are not expecting any response messages. So we can safely go to sleep and save power.
The “Early Release” flag was recommended by Mr Henk Vergonet at T-Mobile Netherlands
Here’s a valuable tip from Mr Stefan de Lange…
ECL is a key parameter to monitor. It determines the amount of repetitions the module will do. So instead of sending a message once the module might send the message 10, 20 or 30 times to make sure it arrives.
The ECL is displayed when we send the
When Apache Mynewt Idles
Let’s dive deep into Mynewt and understand what happens when our Blue Pill is idle, waiting to poll the temperature sensor or waiting for an NB-IoT command to complete…
The Arm processor inside our Blue Pill has a built-in SysTick Timer. It’s used by Mynewt to perform multitasking. In the code above, Mynewt configures the SysTick Timer to generate an interrupt every millisecond.
When the millisecond interrupt is triggered, Mynewt checks whether it should continue running the current task, or switch to a higher-priority task. If there are no tasks ready to run (which will most likely be the case for our device), Mynewt still keeps checking every single millisecond. This is not good for battery life.
What happens when there are no tasks ready to run? Mynewt calls
os_task_idle(), passing the number of ticks that it should stay idle. (1 tick = 1 millisecond)
Mynewt computes the idle time based on the list of pending tasks. So if the temperature sensor is supposed to be polled every 10 seconds, Mynewt knows that after polling the sensor, it should stay idle for roughly 10,000 ticks before resuming the polling task.
WFI in the code above is the Arm instruction “Wait For Interrupt”. It means that the Arm processor will go into a power-saving quick nap (not Deep Sleep) until an interrupt occurs.
BUT… remember that our SysTick Interrupt occurs every millisecond… so our Blue Pill doesn’t sleep much!
Here’s proof of that… Watch what happens when we add some debug output to
💎 “Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle” for Embedded Systems…
Don’t try at home what you see above! It’s NOT a good idea to display debug messages on the console when you’re deep inside the operating system… like in the Task Scheduling code above.
How did I do it? My
console_print()functions were specially designed to buffer output messages into RAM (using
mbufs). So no I/O is performed by the code above… Until the application flushes the console output.
If this debug code used a normal console I/O call, it would interfere with the
os_task_idle()operation (it might get deadlocked). So when you insert debug code to observe what’s happening deep inside your microcontroller, you might actually affect the outcome.
Hence some folks call this “Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle” (like in Quantum Mechanics)… Beware of Heisenberg! :-)
Going Tickless on Apache Mynewt with Real Time Clock
Here’s the problem: We would like to sleep longer and conserve power… But the SysTick Timer keeps waking us up every millisecond. Can we do without SysTick? Can we go… Tickless? Yes we can!
Blue Pill and other STM32 microcontrollers have an onboard Real Time Clock. Unlike a real wall clock, the Real Time Clock doesn’t tell you the time of the day. But it’s useful for two things…
1️⃣ Counting the ticks that have elapsed since we powered on our device. It keeps counting even in Deep Sleep!
2️⃣ Triggering an Alarm Interrupt at a time (in ticks) that we set
Remember that Mynewt calls
os_task_idle(X) when it’s ready to sleep for
X milliseconds. Why don’t we set the Real Time Clock Alarm to wake us up in
So in the optimised task scheduler for Mynewt, we eliminate SysTick altogether, replaced by the Real Time Clock Alarm.
os_task_idle() now calls
WFI, the Wait For Interrupt instruction that we saw earlier? It still works! Because the Real Time Clock triggers an interrupt (Alarm Interrupt) when the time is up. Here’s how we call
WFI for a quick nap (Sleep Now Mode)…
power_sleep() function calls
WFI for a quick nap. When we have finished transmitting our sensor data over NB-IoT, we could actually take a longer nap… this is the Deep Sleep Standby Mode we saw earlier… the one that consumes only 3 milliAmperes! (With the power LEDs still lit) We’ll cover Deep Sleep Standby Mode in a while.
Zephyr RTOS has a good explanation of Tickless Task Scheduling here
Power Saving Modes on Blue Pill
There are three power saving modes on Blue Pill…
1️⃣ Sleep Now Mode (10 milliAmperes): This is the
WFI (Wait For Interrupt) instruction that’s implemented in the Arm processor. It puts Blue Pill into a light nap that still consumes substantial power. That’s because the Blue Pill peripherals (like the UART port) are still powered on.
2️⃣ Deep Sleep Stop Mode: Similar to Sleep Now Mode, except that the peripherals (like UART) are powered down. Consumes less power than Sleep Now Mode but more power than Deep Sleep Standby Mode. On wakeup, Blue Pill resumes execution with the peripherals powered down. RAM is preserved.
3️⃣ Deep Sleep Standby Mode (3 milliAmperes, with power LEDs still lit): The ultimate low power mode. All peripherals powered down (same as Deep Sleep Stop Mode). BUT on wakeup, Blue Pill restarts as though it was just powered on. Everything in RAM is lost.
This may sound odd… But Deep Sleep Standby Mode (the ultimate power saver) is easier to code than Deep Sleep Stop Mode.
With Stop Mode we need to power on the peripherals ourselves when waking up… And it gets complicated. With Standby Mode, we just pretend that our Blue Pill has just powered on… Except that we can check a flag to distinguish whether it’s a Power On or a Standby Wakeup.
Here’s how we check the flag…
Embedded Rust Application For Low Power
Remember from our previous tutorial that the IoT Sensor Application was developed in Rust. Is Rust really suitable for Low Power Devices? Does Rust make our device less power-efficient?
I’m happy to report that Rust is just as power-efficient as C! That’s because Rust is compiled into optimised Arm machine code, so there’s no extra execution overhead when our application is written in Rust.
The Rust application logic was tweaked slightly to make it more power-efficient…
The top half of the function
start_sensor_listener() is exactly the same as before. When our device is powered up, we instruct Mynewt to poll the temperature sensor every 20 seconds. Mynewt passes the sensor data to our function
handle_sensor_data() for transmitting to the server.
The lower half of
start_sensor_listener() introduces a minor twist… When our device wakes up from Deep Sleep Standby Mode, we read the temperature sensor directly, without polling. And we transmit the sensor data the same way, via
This keeps our device fully occupied during the precious few seconds that our device is awake, until it falls into Deep Sleep.
The Sensor Network Library (written in C) has been optimised for low power operation as well. During wakeup, the function attaches to the NB-IoT network and doesn’t return until it completes. (Previously we started a background task to attach to the NB-IoT network so that we could run other tasks.)
This chart illustrates the power consumed when our Blue Pill polls the onboard temperature sensor vs reading the sensor directly.
The code changes are really minor. Mynewt’s Sensor Framework has done an excellent job in managing the access to sensors in a consistent, reusable way, even for Low Power. And Rust makes the code look much cleaner and simpler than C.
Measure Power Consumption with RuiDeng DPS 3005 Power Monitor
Now let’s run our IoT Sensor Device and measure the power consumption with RuiDeng DPS 3005 Power Monitor!
Follow the instructions here to connect Blue Pill to the NB-IoT module and ST-Link.
Let’s look at inputs and outputs for the Power Monitor…
Inputs at Left Side (
IN+, IN-): Connect to the DC power supply. I used two 18650 lithium ion 3.7 Volt batteries connected in series. Total 7.2 Volts, sufficient for providing 5 Volts to our Blue Pill and NB-IoT module.
Outputs at Right Side (
OUT-, OUT+): Connect to the Blue Pill and NB-IoT module. This will be the 5-Volt power source for our Blue Pill and NB-IoT module.
Here’s how I powered my Power Monitor…
When Flashing Firmware…
When flashing the firmware to Blue Pill, connect ST-Link to Blue Pill and the NB-IoT module as shown.
Note that the NB-IoT module is powered by the 5V pin from ST-Link.
Blue Pill’s 5V pin should be disconnected.
When Monitoring Power Consumption…
When monitoring the power consumption, disconnect ST-Link.
Connect Blue Pill’s 5V pin to the Power Meter.
The NB-IoT module should be powered by the Power Meter as well.
Make sure your DPS 3005 Power Monitor is bundled with a Bluetooth module.
The module connects the Power Monitor to your Windows computer wirelessly for recording data power consumption data (at 1 sample per second). Sadly I couldn’t connect from macOS.
RuiDeng’s software for DPS 3005 did not allow recording of data, so I used the open-source
DPS5005_pyGUI data logger.
The low power version of Apache Mynewt and the updated Embedded Rust application may be installed according to these instructions.
Install Low Power Apache Mynewt and Embedded Rust for Visual Studio Code on Windows
Follow these instructions to install Low Power Apache Mynewt + Embedded Rust build and application files for Visual…
Is 1 sample per second sufficient for understanding the power consumption?
Honestly, no. There are peaks in our power consumption during NB-IoT transmission. The peaks seem to reach 400 milliAmperes… But because the sampling rate is so low, the peaks could possibly be much higher than that.
Nonetheless, we now have a $25 setup that lets us quickly tweak our firmware and check whether the tweaks actually improve power consumption. So the RuiDeng Power Monitor is an affordable way to guide us towards the right direction to reduce power consumption. When you have finalised the firmware, remember to use the proper equipment to measure the real power consumption!
After optimising the power consumption, how much longer did the battery last? A whopping… 26% increase in battery life!
But it’s a good start! Remember that the power LEDs are still lit. And we have achieved flat lines of power usage during Deep Sleep.
Right now our Blue Pill wakes up every 1 minute or so… If we could extend the Deep Sleep to 10 minutes or longer, we should get much lower overall power consumption.
Unfortunately I couldn’t get Blue Pill to sleep beyond 1 minute… Something is still waking it up. Another timer? Or NB-IoT?
I invite you to reproduce the same setup with the steps I have described… And help me solve the mystery! (Or work around it… See the “Backup Registers” section below)
But I hope you now have a deeper appreciation of all the components that make an IoT Sensor truly Low Power… the Network (NB-IoT), the Microcontroller (STM32) and the Operating System (Mynewt)!
Many thanks to StarHub for sponsoring the NB-IoT SIM that I used for this article!
💎 Advanced Topic: Main and Backup Power
Let’s study the power input for STM32F103C8T6, the STM32 microcontroller at the heart of Blue Pill. Most parts of STM32F103C8T6 are powered by the Main Power (
VDD in the above diagram).
STM32F103C8T6 has a Backup Domain (highlighted in red) that may be powered by Main Power
VDD or Backup Power
VBAT. The Backup Domain contains the minimum components essential for Deep Sleep, such as the Real Time Clock.
This means that it’s possible to sustain Blue Pill in Deep Sleep just by supplying a bit of Backup Power to the
VBAT pin, while the rest of Blue Pill (running on Main Power) is powered down.
Everything in the Backup Domain continues to operate as long as Backup Power is available. What’s inside the Backup Domain?
1️⃣ Low Speed External (LSE) Oscillator: This generates the ticks that’s needed by the Real Time Clock to track time accurately during Deep Sleep
2️⃣ Backup Registers (BKP): These are ten 16-bit registers that we may use to store 20 bytes of data. The contents of the registers will be preserved across restarts and wakeups, as long as Backup Power is available. We’ll see later how Backup Registers may be used.
3️⃣ Backup Domain Control Register (BDCR): This register is used to configure the LSE Oscillator and Real Time Clock.
4️⃣ Real Time Clock (RTC): This is needed to count the ticks produced by the LSE Oscillator and track the elapsed time accurately. It also wakes up the microcontroller at the preset alarm time.
💎 Advanced Topic: Configure the Real Time Clock
This section explains how we configured the Real Time Clock on Blue Pill. The
alarm_setup() code looks tricky so we’ll study this step by step.
alarm_setup() function is called at startup and wakeup by
__wrap_os_tick_init(), which is the intercepted version of
os_tick_init() that we’ll see in the section “Advanced Topic: Patch Mynewt OS Functions” below.
Blue Pill has three Oscillator Clocks: HSE, LSE and LSI. These are primitive clocks, good for producing ticks only. We may select one of these Oscillator Clocks to drive the Real Time Clock and trigger the Deep Sleep wakeup alarm.
1️⃣ High Speed External (HSE) is the fastest clock… But also needs the most power. HSE uses only Main Power, doesn’t work on Backup Power. So when we sleep and switch to Backup Power, it stops. Not suitable for setting the Deep Sleep alarm.
2️⃣ Low Speed Internal (LSI) is a slower clock but it also runs on Main Power, not Backup Power. So it’s not suitable for setting the Deep Sleep alarm either.
3️⃣ Low Speed External (LSE) is the best choice because it works on Backup Power (assuming that our Blue Pill has a Backup Power source when it goes into Deep Sleep)
What’s “Prescaling”? Something you do on a fish? No, prescaling lets us run the Real Time Clock as a fraction of the HSE / LSE / LSI clock speeds. So when we prescale LSE by 32, we run the Real Time Clock at 1 tick per millisecond. (LSE ticks natively at 32.768 kHz, or 32,768 ticks per second)
Real Time Clock may be used in 3 ways to trigger interrupts…
1️⃣ After a preset number of ticks (
RTC_SEC). So that the STM32 microcontroller’s Real Time Clock may be used like the Arm processor’s SysTick Timer.
2️⃣ At a preset alarm time (
RTC_ALR). We’re using this to wake up from Deep Sleep.
3️⃣ Upon overflow (
RTC_OW). The Real Time Clock is a 32-bit counter that counts the number of elapsed ticks from 0 to 4,294,967,295. When the counter overflows, the Real Time Clock triggers this interrupt so that the operating system can do the necessary time adjustments.
We’ll be using only the Alarm Interrupt
RTC_ALR. When the alarm goes off, the Arm processor will call our function
At power on we switch on the Real Time Clock and set the counter value to 0 (
rtc_set_counter_val). This is the counter we’ll be using to track the elapsed time (as millisecond ticks) in our application.
During wakeup from Deep Sleep we don’t reset the Real Time Clock counter. That way we can track the elapsed time as Blue Pill sleeps. Remember that the Real Time Clock keeps counting the ticks during Deep Sleep (powered by Backup Power).
For Deep Sleep Stop Mode: The External Interrupt (EXTI) must be configured so that the Alarm Interrupt will wake us up (
exti_set_trigger). This is not necessary for Deep Sleep Standby Mode.
Once we enable the Alarm Interrupt via
rtc_interrupt_enable(RTC_ALR), the alarm becomes operational. We will call
rtc_set_alarm_time() to set the alarm time (in ticks). When the alarm goes off, our function
rtc_alarm_isr() will be called.
Here’s how we set the alarm time before entering Deep Sleep…
💎 Advanced Topic: Backup Registers
Here’s the problem: Blue Pill wakes up from Deep Sleep Standby Mode with amnesia… It doesn’t know what it was doing before it fell into Deep Sleep, since the RAM has been erased. How can we make Blue Pill memorise some state information so that it can resume working after waking up? Without writing to Flash ROM?
Solution: Use the STM32 Backup Registers. Blue Pill’s Backup Registers are ten 16-bit registers that we may use to store 20 bytes of data. The contents of the registers will be preserved across restarts and wakeups, as long as there is Backup Power (or Main Power) supplied to Blue Pill. It works just the Real Time Clock!
This code was used in my Bootloader (from an earlier article) to remember whether Blue Pill is supposed to restart in Bootloader Mode or Application Mode. Check out the article: “STM32 Blue Pill — Bootloading the WebUSB Bootloader”
💎 Advanced Topic: Patch Mynewt OS Functions
The low power functions were implemented in a custom library
libs/low_power. How did we patch the Mynewt OS functions like
os_task_idle() with our custom library? By using the Linker Wrap directive in our library…
When the GNU Linker collates the compiled object files (
*.o) to create the firmware image, it will look for all calls to
os_tick_idle() and rename them as calls to
Note that GNU Linker will NOT rename the original
os_tick_idle() function defined in Mynewt. Which means that we may implement the
__wrap_os_tick_idle() function ourselves and the callers will happily pretend that it’s really
os_tick_idle(). That’s how we intercept system functions in Mynewt…
It’s a nasty way to alter the behaviour of Mynewt (and I don’t condone it). But for exploratory and educational purposes, it’s probably OK.
Note that the firmware size is close to 60 KB. Adding the 4 KB Stub Bootloader we get total 64 KB of Flash ROM used. This is very close to Blue Pill’s 64 KB ROM capacity. When you’re not debugging, uncomment the
-Os option in
# C compiler flags
- -DFLOAT_SUPPORT # For encoding floats in CoAP messages
# - -Os # Optimise for smallest size
Also the random number generator has been disabled to reduce code size, hence the Device ID is always
0000… To enable it, change
HMAC_PRNG: 0 # Disable HMAC PRNG pseudorandom number generator