8,000 hertz, the global chip shortage and military drones

, by
Patrick Schmalzried

Equipping the M2K with driverless 8,000 hertz almost did not happen, courtesy of the 2020–2021 global chip shortage. You are probably wondering what military drones have to do with all of this, but I will get to that later.

Chipageddon

The global chip shortage, or «chipageddon» for short, primarily was caused by the Corona pandemic. These days chips are not only in computers, but almost everywhere, be it your car or your toothbrush. Hence not just Apple or Ford are hit by chipageddon, but even something seemingly lowtech such as dog-washing businesses.

Making chips is pretty difficult. In fact one of the industrys inside jokes is that «Making chips is not rocket science – it is much more difficult.»

It will come as no surprise then that it takes billions of dollars and two to three years to build chip factories. Hence it is not possible to just quickly build a bunch of new chip factories to fix the problem. Once a chip crisis has started, it can take years until it is gone.

When we started working on the printed circuit board (PCB) of the M2K almost all of the cheap chips that could do driverless 8,000 hertz were sold out already. This could have been the end of driverless 8,000 hertz for the M2K right there, but instead we decided to buy chips that were so expensive that not many were interested in them. The STM32F7 series by STMicroelectronic has a 216 MHz Cortex-M7 core and is among the most cutting edge ARM chips that STMicroelectronics offers. For comparison: each of these chips is four times as expensive as the chip inside the M1K.

Things got close even though we went with this expensive chip. So close in fact, that we ended up buying the complete world market for this particular chip. Well; almost the complete world market. We tried getting even more chips than were available at the usual suspects like Mouser or Digi-Key and started talking to companies specialized in hunting down rare chips. Those companies indeed found very small amounts of the chip we wanted, but they were asking scalper prices: they wanted to have four times the regular price.

Military drones

The STM32F7 series chip that we use in the M2K is not only very expensive by the way. It is also madly over-specced for a gaming mouse. So much so, that these chips typically are used in drones. In fact, one of the companies that we bought the chips from told us that «due to the nature of this part» they needed to know more about our company and our product before they could sell us the chips. I guess that was corporate speak for «This chip can be used to build military drones, what the hell are you up to?»