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A Deep Dive Into Low Power WiFi Microcontrollers
Tuesday, 18 December 2018 09:00

The Internet of Things is eating everything alive, and the world wants to know: how do you make a small, battery-powered, WiFi-enabled microcontroller device? This is a surprisingly difficult problem. WiFi is not optimized for low-power operations. It’s power-hungry, and there’s a lot of overhead. That said, there are microcontrollers out there with WiFi capability, but how do they hold up to running off of a battery for days, or weeks? That’s what [TvE] is exploring in a fantastic multi-part series of posts delving into low-power WiFi microcontrollers.

The idea for these experiments is set up in the first post in the series. Basically, the goal is to measure how long the ESP8266 and ESP32 will run on a battery, using various sleep modes. Both the ESP8266 and ESP32 have deep-sleep modes, a ‘sleep’ mode where the state is preserved, a ‘CPU only’ mode that turns the RF off, and various measures for sending and receiving a packet.

The takeaway from these experiments is that a battery-powered ESP8266 can’t be used for more than a week without a seriously beefy battery or a solar panel. Run times are much longer with an open network as compared to a secured network, and that security eats up a ton of power: connecting to a secure network every now and again means your ESP might only run for a day, instead of a week.

There is another option, though: the ESP32. While the ’32 is vastly more powerful and more capable than the ESP8266, it also has a few improved features that help with power consumption. Importantly, there’s a bug in the ESP8266 where it drops into modem sleep instead of light sleep about half the time. This error was fixed in the ESP32, but all that power does come at a cost. On the whole, if you’re concerned about security, the ESP32 is slightly better, simply because it does the ‘security’ part of connecting to a WiFi network faster. This is really a remarkable amount of testing that’s gone into this write-up, so if you’re developing something battery-powered with any ESP, it’s well worth the read.