What Is FPGA and FPGA Applications

In this article, I will talk about FPGAs and, with them, how designers develop specific and unique hardware for various electronics projects without stumping by the same application-specific standard product (ASSP) all their competitors are using.

What’s FPGA

FPGAs (is an acronym for field-programmable gate array) are integrated circuits that enable designers and developers to program customized digital logic in the field – details will be explained. FPGAs have been around since the 1980s and were originally planned to give all developers and designers the ability to create custom logic without applying high costs. FPGAs are semiconductor ICs where a large majority of the electrical functionality inside the device can be changed; modified by the design engineer, improved during the PCB assembly process, or even reversed after the equipment has been shipped to customers out in the field. In other words, an FPGA is a semiconductor device on which the function can be defined and modified even after manufacturing. In that regard, an FPGA enables you to prioritize product features and functions, adapt to new standards, and reconfigure hardware for specific applications and projects after the product has been installed in the field — hence the term field programmable. And, gate arrays (GAs) – two-dimensional arrays – are prefabricated silicon chips with most components having no predetermined functions, which can be connected by metal layers to form well-known NAND or NOR logic gates. These logic gates can then be further interconnected into a complete circuit to develop complex structures depending on the requirements of the electronics project. There’s a remarkable theorem in computer science that says that NAND gates are universal, meaning that you can implement any well-defined function simply by connecting NAND gates. So if you can build enough NAND gates, you can build a device computing anything. I have digressed a little from the subject. In less industrial terms, an FPGA allows you adaptability in your designs and is a way to transform how parts of a system work without introducing a large amount of cost and risk of delays into the design schedule.

FPGA Applications

FPGAs provide various advantages to designers of many types of electronic equipment: camera time adjustments, aircraft navigation, automotive driver’s assistance, medical ultrasounds, and data center search engines. For instance, FPGA functionality allows designers to change product functions and features even after manufacturing. In that regard, adjustments and modifications can be made to the FPGA without making costly PC board changes – other design options (ASSPs and ASICs) cannot be changed without great cost and time. Due to that flexibility, designers are able to send products with enhanced abilities to the market quicker and cheaper. Furthermore, FPGAs include on-die processors, transceiver I/O’s at 28 Gbps (or faster), RAM blocks, DSP engines, and more. More functions within the FPGA mean fewer devices on the circuit board, increasing reliability by reducing the number of device failures with lower costs.

As explained above, FPGAs have lots of benefits, but are they easy to program? Programming FPGAs is much easier than most designers might think. The steps to programming an FPGA include identifying any segments of the design that the designer wants to compose himself/herself, choosing a high-level or hardware description language (HDL), writing the code in a text editor, synthesizing the design, placing and routing the design, then loading the design onto the FPGA itself. After the design is loaded onto the FPGA, it probably will require a cycle of debugging to fix flaws and glitches in functionality. Nevertheless, without using an HDL (high-level or hardware description language), software designers can now compile their code and create a hardware-description file necessity for the FPGA design, by using high-level software-programming tools like OpenCL. For more detailed design, designers still have to use an HDL such as Verilog which is a widespread HDL used in creating designs for FPGAs. Conveniently, Verilog has a syntax very similar to the well-known, general-purpose programming language called C. In FPGA programming, a synthesis tool converts the product design programmed in an HDL into a network of gates, registers, and wires configured to implement the functions the HDL describes. Then additional processes select which particular gates, registers, and wires to use in the FPGA and create a programming file that will configure the FPGA when it powers up. After compiling the HDL design, designers debug the code before applying it to the FPGA by testing the design in a simulation environment.

There are tons of applications and fields in which designers and developers utilize FPGAs to create high-quality end-products from basic to complex structures: adapting quickly and cost-effectively to evolving end markets and standards, meeting and escalating performance requirements, lowering system development and bill-of-materials cost through their flexibility.
• Development Boards and Shields for Microcontrollers
• Automation
• Embedded Vision
• Solar Energy
• Industrial IoT
• Cryptography
• Computer Hardware Emulation
• Aerospace and Defense
• Scientific Instruments
• Video & Image Processing
• Wireless Communications
• Broadcast
• Data Mining

In other words, in the implied fields and applications, and more, you can create state-of-the-art devices that can be customized and enhanced to adapt to emerging standards or changing requirements that of the industry. If you are a novice in designing devices consisting of FPGAs, such as a remarkable development board for your electronics projects, you may think that building a system with an FPGA means that you have to mess with millions of logic gates and massive amounts of connections to achieve your project design. But, do not worry, FPGA designers have done much of the heavy lifting of adding commonly needed components like clock generators, dynamic random access memory (DRAM) controllers, peripheral component interconnect express controllers (PCI), and even whole multicore microprocessors: so all you need to do is to concentrate on customizing functions that are specific to your project.

In conclusion, FPGAs are giving the ability to create flexible, cheap, and adaptive hardware to designers who develop future innovations without being forced to use the common circuit designs whose electrical functionality cannot be changed after manufacturing.

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June 2020