ULP coprocessor programming

ULP (Ultra Low Power) coprocessor is a simple FSM which is designed to perform measurements using ADC, temperature sensor, and external I2C sensors, while main processors are in deep sleep mode. ULP coprocessor can access RTC_SLOW_MEM memory region, and registers in RTC_CNTL, RTC_IO, and SARADC peripherals. ULP coprocessor uses fixed-width 32-bit instructions, 32-bit memory addressing, and has 4 general purpose 16-bit registers.

Installing the toolchain

ULP coprocessor code is written in assembly and compiled using the binutils-esp32ulp toolchain.

1. Download the toolchain using the links listed on this page: https://github.com/espressif/binutils-esp32ulp/wiki#downloads

  1. Extract the toolchain into a directory, and add the path to the bin/ directory of the toolchain to the PATH environment variable.

Compiling ULP code

To compile ULP code as part of a component, the following steps must be taken:

  1. ULP code, written in assembly, must be added to one or more files with .S extension. These files must be placed into a separate directory inside component directory, for instance ulp/.
  1. Modify the component makefile, adding the following:

    ULP_S_SOURCES = $(COMPONENT_PATH)/ulp/ulp_source_file.S
    ULP_EXP_DEP_OBJECTS := main.o
    include $(IDF_PATH)/components/ulp/component_ulp_common.mk

    Here is each line explained:


    Name of the generated ULP application, without an extension. This name is used for build products of the ULP application: ELF file, map file, binary file, generated header file, and generated linker export file.


    List of assembly files to be passed to the ULP assembler. These must be absolute paths, i.e. start with $(COMPONENT_PATH). Consider using $(addprefix) function if more than one file needs to be listed. Paths are relative to component build directory, so prefixing them is not necessary.


    List of object files names within the component which include the generated header file. This list is needed to build the dependencies correctly and ensure that the generated header file is created before any of these files are compiled. See section below explaining the concept of generated header files for ULP applications.

    include $(IDF_PATH)/components/ulp/component_ulp_common.mk

    Includes common definitions of ULP build steps. Defines build targets for ULP object files, ELF file, binary file, etc.

  2. Build the application as usual (e.g. make app)

    Inside, the build system will take the following steps to build ULP program:

    1. Run each assembly file (foo.S) through C preprocessor. This step generates the preprocessed assembly files (foo.ulp.pS) in the component build directory. This step also generates dependency files (foo.ulp.d).
    2. Run preprocessed assembly sources through assembler. This produces objects (foo.ulp.o) and listing (foo.ulp.lst) files. Listing files are generated for debugging purposes and are not used at later stages of build process.
    3. Run linker script template through C preprocessor. The template is located in components/ulp/ld directory.
    4. Link object files into an output ELF file (ulp_app_name.elf). Map file (ulp_app_name.map) generated at this stage may be useful for debugging purposes.
    5. Dump contents of the ELF file into binary (ulp_app_name.bin) for embedding into the application.
    6. Generate list of global symbols (ulp_app_name.sym) in the ELF file using esp32ulp-elf-nm.
    7. Create LD export script and header file (ulp_app_name.ld and ulp_app_name.h) containing the symbols from ulp_app_name.sym. This is done using esp32ulp_mapgen.py utility.
    8. Add the generated binary to the list of binary files to be emedded into the application.

Accessing ULP program variables

Global symbols defined in the ULP program may be used inside the main program.

For example, ULP program may define a variable measurement_count which will define the number of ADC measurements the program needs to make before waking up the chip from deep sleep:

                        .global measurement_count
measurement_count:      .long 0

                        /* later, use measurement_count */
                        move r3, measurement_count
                        ld r3, r3, 0

Main program needs to initialize this variable before ULP program is started. Build system makes this possible by generating a $(ULP_APP_NAME).h and $(ULP_APP_NAME).ld files which define global symbols present in the ULP program. This files include each global symbol defined in the ULP program, prefixed with ulp_.

The header file contains declaration of the symbol:

extern uint32_t ulp_measurement_count;

Note that all symbols (variables, arrays, functions) are declared as uint32_t. For functions and arrays, take address of the symbol and cast to the appropriate type.

The generated linker script file defines locations of symbols in RTC_SLOW_MEM:

PROVIDE ( ulp_measurement_count = 0x50000060 );

To access ULP program variables from the main program, include the generated header file and use variables as one normally would:

#include "ulp_app_name.h"

// later
void init_ulp_vars() {
    ulp_measurement_count = 64;

Note that ULP program can only use lower 16 bits of each 32-bit word in RTC memory, because the registers are 16-bit, and there is no instruction to load from high part of the word.

Likewise, ULP store instruction writes register value into the lower 16 bit part of the 32-bit word. Upper 16 bits are written with a value which depends on the address of the store instruction, so when reading variables written by the ULP, main application needs to mask upper 16 bits, e.g.:

printf("Last measurement value: %d\n", ulp_last_measurement & UINT16_MAX);

Starting the ULP program

To run a ULP program, main application needs to load the ULP program into RTC memory using ulp_load_binary function, and then start it using ulp_run function.

Note that “Enable Ultra Low Power (ULP) Coprocessor” option must be enabled in menuconfig in order to reserve memory for the ULP. “RTC slow memory reserved for coprocessor” option must be set to a value sufficient to store ULP code and data. If the application components contain multiple ULP programs, then the size of the RTC memory must be sufficient to hold the largest one.

Each ULP program is embedded into the ESP-IDF application as a binary blob. Application can reference this blob and load it in the following way (suppose ULP_APP_NAME was defined to ulp_app_name:

extern const uint8_t bin_start[] asm("_binary_ulp_app_name_bin_start");
extern const uint8_t bin_end[]   asm("_binary_ulp_app_name_bin_end");

void start_ulp_program() {
    ESP_ERROR_CHECK( ulp_load_binary(
        0 /* load address, set to 0 when using default linker scripts */,
        (bin_end - bin_start) / sizeof(uint32_t)) );
esp_err_t ulp_load_binary(uint32_t load_addr, const uint8_t *program_binary, size_t program_size)

Load ULP program binary into RTC memory.

ULP program binary should have the following format (all values little-endian):

  1. MAGIC, (value 0x00706c75, 4 bytes)
  2. TEXT_OFFSET, offset of .text section from binary start (2 bytes)
  3. TEXT_SIZE, size of .text section (2 bytes)
  4. DATA_SIZE, size of .data section (2 bytes)
  5. BSS_SIZE, size of .bss section (2 bytes)
  6. (TEXT_OFFSET - 16) bytes of arbitrary data (will not be loaded into RTC memory)
  7. .text section
  8. .data section

Linker script in components/ulp/ld/esp32.ulp.ld produces ELF files which correspond to this format. This linker script produces binaries with load_addr == 0.

  • ESP_OK on success
  • ESP_ERR_INVALID_ARG if load_addr is out of range
  • ESP_ERR_INVALID_SIZE if program_size doesn’t match (TEXT_OFFSET + TEXT_SIZE + DATA_SIZE)
  • ESP_ERR_NOT_SUPPORTED if the magic number is incorrect
  • load_addr: address where the program should be loaded, expressed in 32-bit words
  • program_binary: pointer to program binary
  • program_size: size of the program binary

Once the program is loaded into RTC memory, application can start it, passing the address of the entry point to ulp_run function:

ESP_ERROR_CHECK( ulp_run((&ulp_entry - RTC_SLOW_MEM) / sizeof(uint32_t)) );
esp_err_t ulp_run(uint32_t entry_point)

Run the program loaded into RTC memory.

ESP_OK on success
  • entry_point: entry point, expressed in 32-bit words

Declaration of the entry point symbol comes from the above mentioned generated header file, $(ULP_APP_NAME).h. In assembly source of the ULP application, this symbol must be marked as .global:

        .global entry
        /* code starts here */

ULP program flow

ULP coprocessor is started by a timer. The timer is started once ulp_run is called. The timer counts a number of RTC_SLOW_CLK ticks (by default, produced by an internal 150kHz RC oscillator). The number of ticks is set using SENS_ULP_CP_SLEEP_CYCx_REG registers (x = 0..4). When starting the ULP for the first time, SENS_ULP_CP_SLEEP_CYC0_REG will be used to set the number of timer ticks. Later the ULP program can select another SENS_ULP_CP_SLEEP_CYCx_REG register using sleep instruction.

The application can set ULP timer period values (SENS_ULP_CP_SLEEP_CYCx_REG, x = 0..4) using ulp_wakeup_period_set function.

esp_err_t ulp_set_wakeup_period(size_t period_index, uint32_t period_us)

Set one of ULP wakeup period values.

ULP coprocessor starts running the program when the wakeup timer counts up to a given value (called period). There are 5 period values which can be programmed into SENS_ULP_CP_SLEEP_CYCx_REG registers, x = 0..4. By default, wakeup timer will use the period set into SENS_ULP_CP_SLEEP_CYC0_REG, i.e. period number 0. ULP program code can use SLEEP instruction to select which of the SENS_ULP_CP_SLEEP_CYCx_REG should be used for subsequent wakeups.

  • ESP_OK on success
  • ESP_ERR_INVALID_ARG if period_index is out of range
  • period_index: wakeup period setting number (0 - 4)
  • period_us: wakeup period, us

Once the timer counts the number of ticks set in the selected SENS_ULP_CP_SLEEP_CYCx_REG register, ULP coprocessor powers up and starts running the program from the entry point set in the call to ulp_run.

The program runs until it encounters a halt instruction or an illegal instruction. Once the program halts, ULP coprocessor powers down, and the timer is started again.

To disable the timer (effectively preventing the ULP program from running again), clear the RTC_CNTL_ULP_CP_SLP_TIMER_EN bit in the RTC_CNTL_STATE0_REG register. This can be done both from ULP code and from the main program.