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How Embedded Systems Impact Your Everyday Life
Staff Writer

From the computer systems that control safety features in the latest automobiles to the ATMs we use regularly to access cash, embedded systems can be found everywhere in our society. In fact, a full 98% of microprocessors manufactured today will find their use in embedded systems. That leaves just 2% for use in computers!

To help our readers understand the extent to which embedded systems are at work in their everyday lives, we wrote this article as a "day in the life" look at how embedded systems play a role in our daily activities, interactions and tasks. We'll show you how embedded systems are used to help keep you safe, provide you with goods and services that you could never otherwise have, and generally enhance your quality of life. Enjoy!


A Clear Picture of Embedded Systems

As we begin, let's quickly define an embedded system as a computer system with a dedicated function within a larger mechanical or electric system. That gives us two important criteria for understanding what an embedded system is:

The system must be computerized, meaning that it functions with a microprocessor or microcontroller.

The system is embedded in something else; it's part of a larger device that serves a function on its own, and the role of the embedded system is to control the functions or processes of the system which it is a part of.

An additional characteristic of embedded systems is that they frequently operate in real-time, meaning that the system controls the environment by receiving data, processing it, and returning the results quickly enough to affect the environment within a reasonable time-frame, often milliseconds, or even microseconds.

We encourage you to think about how this definition applies to these examples and to envision where else in your life you may encounter embedded systems that fit this definition.


Embedded Systems In the Morning

From the time you wake in the morning, you can already thank embedded systems for the role they play in your life. Embedded systems are used in home security and alarm systems to keep you, your family, and your possessions safe. A sophisticated home alarm system is comprised of sensors that detect when something is wrong, a microcontroller that processes the information, and an output system - often an audible alarm. Home alarm systems may include sensors that detect intruders (motion sensors), fires (temperature sensors), or even noxious gases (carbon monoxide sensor).

If you slept well, you can thank the embedded systems that control the temperature of your home via thermostat. Thermostats are programmed by the user to keep the house at a particular temperature. Sensors are used to gauge the warmth of the home, and the embedded system works to activate or deactivate your home's furnace or air conditioning system automatically. That's a big improvement from shoveling coal into a fireplace.

As you're getting dressed for work, you can thank the embedded systems in your laundry machines for the fresh, clean clothes you put on. You choose whether you want a hot or cold wash, and the embedded systems in your washing machine initiate the soak, wash, rinse, and spin cycles. This is done via sensors that track the water level, the open/closed status of water intake and drainage valves, and the motor that controls your spin cycle.


Embedded Systems on the Road

You've made it out the door and it's time to head into the office and get your work day started! As you get behind the wheel, remember that your vehicle is literally chock full of embedded systems that sense information about your vehicle and process is to produce various outputs. Let's take a look at just a few of these embedded systems and how they function:


  1. A sensor monitors fuel levels in your vehicle and a visual display tells you in real-time how much gas you have left and how far you can travel with it. When you're low on gas, the fuel light on your dashboard turns on.
  2. Embedded systems manage all of the lighting on your vehicle - running lights, 4-way flashers, brake lights, and headlights are all managed by embedded systems. In some cases, you're in direct control of the input - you manually turn your headlights on - but in other cases, sensors detect what you're doing and respond automatically - a sensor detects when you're braking and turns your brake lights on.
  3. Airbags in cars are controlled by an accelerometer, a special type of sensor that detects rapid changes in acceleration that happen during collisions. This information is fed to a microcontroller that instantaneously deploys airbags to protect driver and passengers in case of a collision.
  4. The GPS system in your car also works like an embedded system - it interfaces with satellites or a downloaded map of your area and processes information about your speed and location to give you directions.

Even traffic lights are controlled by embedded systems. They may change on a particular schedule, or use sensors to detect the presence of vehicles and adjust their timing to optimize the flow of traffic.


Embedded Systems at Work

By the time you get to your office building, you've already interacted with and benefited from multiple types of embedded systems throughout the day. You may even have provided the input for some of them, like a traffic light that sensed the arrival of your vehicle and stayed green for a bit longer, or you may have initiated your coffee machine's protocol for your favorite morning brew.

You won't be surprised to find that your workday is full of interactions with embedded systems as well.

The elevator that you take to your office floor contains an embedded system that optimizes the movement of the elevator based on what buttons are pressed. Elevators operate on a simple algorithm - they're either going up, or going down, depending on what buttons have been pressed, and they are programmed to move people between floors as efficiently as possible to limit energy consumption.

Calculators are one of the oldest and most commonly known types of embedded systems. A sophisticated calculator includes a high-performance processor that can complete many types of complex calculations based on user input.

Printers are often considered a peripheral or accessory for a general computing system, but printers contain their own embedded systems that perform a special function - reading the contents of files and printing them onto paper.


Embedded Systems at Play

Embedded systems are present in many different types of technology, including the ones that we use for fun or hobbies. A digital camera is a perfect example of how embedded systems have changed the way we produce art and how we engage with our hobbies.

The systems embedded in digital cameras serve three essential functions:


  1. Capturing Images/Data - This happens when you take a picture!
  2. Storing Image Data - Memory systems present in cameras allow today's models to store hundreds and even thousands of images at once. External storage modules can also be used to support further storage.
  3. Representing Image Data - Most cameras have digital screens where photographers can view images right away - there's no need to produce and develop film.

Today's smart cameras can even detect humans, faces, eyes, and other features in images, allowing the user to initiate algorithms that fix red-eye or change the appearance of lighting in the image.



We hope you enjoyed this article on how embedded systems impact your daily life. These systems are everywhere around us, and their modular components mean they can be customized in limitless different ways to serve many functions. What other examples of everyday embedded devices can you think of?