How Embedded is Your World?

Embedded systems came into existence in the 1960s as part of the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC), developed by Charles Stark Draper at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory. The AGC provided computation and electronic interfaces for guidance, navigation, and control of the spacecraft. The use of embedded systems has increased exponentially over the last 50+ years especially with the introduction of microcontrollers. Embedded systems are everywhere, including where you least expect them.

Take a moment to look around.

How many gadgets do you think are powered by embedded systems technology? Cell phone, computer, smart watch, those are obvious. Did you happen to include the Wi-Fi router that is helping you read this post? Not many people are aware but most computer equipment, personal electronic devices, home appliances, medical devices, communications equipment and planes, trains and automobiles have embedded systems too.

Embedded systems are ubiquitous, but we fail to recognize them

Electronic devices that help us in our day-to-day activities are often ignored. For instance, consider an ATM machine. Thanks to the monitor, a vast majority of us would believe that it’s a large computer with a cash storage compartment. However, the ATM is an embedded system with a small microcontroller under the hood that has been programmed to control the transactions.

Embedded systems are more than just electronics. They contain both digital and analog aspects, specials sensors, mechanical parts, actuators, software, etc. Unless you are an engineer or someone who deals in embedded electronics, identifying an embedded system would be a pretty daunting task. However, once you know the definition and characteristics of an embedded system, you will be able to identify them without breaking a sweat.

Definition and characteristics of an embedded system

An embedded system is a computer system designed to perform a few specific sets of functions within a larger mechanical or electrical system. However, it doesn’t resemble a computer. Depending upon the purpose of usage, it can either be programmable or non-programmable. In the real world, embedded systems are a part of bigger and more complex systems. That’s one of the reasons why the technology is not talked about much. For example, an average individual with limited knowledge of electronics would consider a washing machine a mechanical device. However, it’s the microcontroller embedded within the circuitry of the washing machine that controls the speed and modes of operation.

These are the general characteristics of an embedded system:

  • Performs a particular task or has a limited task set.
  • Has a very simple UI or is completely devoid of a UI.
  • Is a feedback-oriented system.
  • In most of the cases, is are part of a larger system.
  • Unlike computers and mobile phones, normal users can’t modify the software.

Real-life application areas of embedded systems

With the convergence of communications, sensor technology, computing abilities, etc., embedded systems have evolved into complex forms. These include:

    1. Consumer electronics – When it comes to the application of embedded technology, consumer electronics tops the list. Televisions, music and video players, digital cameras, and printers are some of the most common and widely used embedded systems.
    2. Household appliances – Embedded systems are the lifeline of domestic appliances such washing machines, microwave ovens, refrigerators, air conditioners, etc. Without an embedded system, these appliances would go haywire in no time.
    3. Medical equipment – Embedded system technology has transformed the way medical conditions are diagnosed and treated. MRI machines, CT scanners, heart monitors, and pacemakers are some more examples that benefit from the use of embedded systems.
    4. Space research and exploration – A vast majority of the components used to build spacecraft and specialized sensors are powered by embedded systems.
    5. Communications – The whole world is using the Internet as a means of communication and hardware devices such as routers, switches, hubs, etc., handle the backend of the Internet. These all are powered by embedded systems.
    6. Industrial automation – Industrial automation has significantly improved the pace of manufacturing while reducing costs But, how do you think the assembly lines and sorting systems used in manufacturing plants perform flawlessly? An embedded system ensures that the machines perform the job they were programmed to do.

Embedded systems have a tremendous impact on our lives. Now that you know about embedded technology, isn’t it hard to imagine a life without them? It isn't too far-fetched to say that embedded technology has transformed our lives and made things worlds easier for us. Look around; there are probably a dozen things within your site that are powered by embedded systems. And now, with the convergence of pervasive computing and the Internet of Things, embedded systems will keep changing our world at an ever faster pace.


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