Impact Everyday Life: How Do Embedded Systems Work

Embedded systems engineering is full of opportunities to impact the everyday lives of people around the world. The global market for embedded systems continues to increase each year, with a recent report by analysts at Research and Markets projecting a global annual market growth rate of 6.5% CAGR up to 2024. With diverse applications in communications, consumer electronics, automotive, aerospace & defense, healthcare, and energy, embedded systems technology is poised to play a major role in transforming how we interact with technology in our everyday lives.

Engineers and product developers that wish to be a part of that transformation must begin with a sound understanding of how embedded systems work, how they are applied in today's technological environment, and what revolutionary new applications could exist for embedded systems in the future. Let's start by answering the most basic question, "How do embedded systems work?", before exploring the endless possibilities for embedded systems applications in our changing world.

Example of embedded systems on a circuit board

Image courtesy of Pixabay

How Do Embedded Systems Work?

An embedded system is a hardware-and-software system that performs a dedicated function within a larger mechanical or electrical system. Embedded systems are typically designed to deal with real-time computing constraints, and are controlled by a real-time operating system (RTOS) that can process data as soon as it is received without buffer delays. Most embedded systems today are based on programmable microcontrollers, small computers with integrated memory housed on a single integrated circuit. We can think of embedded systems as having three main components: the hardware component, the software component, and the real-time operating system.

Embedded Systems Hardware

Embedded systems are small embedded computers that live inside other mechanical or electrical systems. Embedded systems can be programmed to fulfill a variety of functions, but each one must include the basic components of a computer:

  • Processor - Embedded systems are built around a microprocessor or microcontroller. Microcontrollers include one or more processors (CPUs), along with integrated memory and programmable input/output peripherals. Most automatically controlled products or devices use microcontrollers , including office machines, power tools, and automobile engine control systems.
  • Power Supply - Embedded systems have significantly lower power requirements than a standard computer due to their small size and comparatively low processing power. Embedded engineers should choose a power supply that offers a stable and smooth output of power to the microcontroller with adequate output current to drive the load and stable performance in a variety of environments.
  • Memory - If an embedded system is powered by a microcontroller, the system's memory is already available on the chip. If using a microprocessor, a memory chip should be added to the system. Embedded systems use read-only memory (ROM) to store the software program used to operate the microcontroller and random access memory (RAM) to temporarily store data that is received or in-use by the system.
  • Communication Ports - Embedded systems use wired communications to transmit data between the microcontroller, peripheral devices, and other embedded systems. Engineers must select a communication protocol to facilitate this data exchange, ensuring that devices in the system are all "speaking the same language" when they communicate or transmit data. Common communication protocols for embedded systems include the I2C protocol, SPI protocol, and the USB protocol, but there are many other wired and wireless protocols available for engineers to choose from.

Embedded Systems Software and RTOS

Programming for embedded systems is most frequently done using C, C++, the Embedded C language or assembly language. The software programming for embedded systems, including the RTOS, resides in the memory chip and can be accessed whenever the power supply for the system is activated. Unlike standard computers, embedded systems are designed to carry out a specific task or function rather than for "general use". As such, embedded systems software is highly specific to each application of embedded systems.

Embedded Systems Applications Today

Embedded systems impact everyday life in so many ways, we may not always realize the number of devices in our immediate surroundings that are controlled by embedded systems. Let's take a brief inventory of some of the most important embedded systems applications and areas of innovation today.

Embedded Systems in Communications

Cellular phones are some of the most accessible examples of embedded systems that we interact with on a daily basis. Mobile phones contain all of the characteristic components of an embedded system: a power supply, some memory or storage, a processor, and ports for communicating with other devices. Mobile phones also contain additional hardware that supports utilities like audio, cameras, internet connectivity, touch screen and calling.

Like other embedded systems, your mobile phone uses a defined communication protocol to facilitate data transactions between the microcontroller or processor and peripheral devices that collect data.

Embedded Systems in Consumer Electronics

Embedded systems are finding their way into many categories of consumer electronics, including home security systems, home appliances, printers, watches, and more. Home appliances like refrigerators, microwave ovens and washing machines use simple embedded systems to provide features, collect input from users, and control the appliance according to user specifications. They may even use some sensors to collect information about how the appliance is functioning and modify settings accordingly.

Home security systems use embedded systems with peripheral sensors to collect information about activity in and around the home and either initiate a response (alarm) or communicate that data to the homeowner.

Embedded Systems in Automotive Applications

All cars manufactured today contain at least one computer that works to measure and minimize engine emissions throughout the operational life of the vehicle. This embedded computer collects data from a variety of peripheral sensor devices, including oxygen sensors, air pressure sensors, air temperature sensors, and the engine temperature sensor. The computer can use data from these sensors to measure the cleanliness of engine emissions and control the fuel injectors, spark plugs and other variables to optimize for engine performance while minimizing environmental impact.

Most vehicles have additional embedded systems that control things like automatic transmission, anti-lock braking systems, air bags, key-less entry or security systems, audio devices and safety applications like lane drift detection.

Embedded Systems in Healthcare

Embedded systems are used in medical scanning machines, imaging systems, and diagnostic equipment. Some of the most commonly used medical imaging devices, such as CT scanners, MRI machines, and Sonography equipment used to conduct ultrasound imaging are built around and controlled by embedded systems. Digital flow sensors used to monitor respiration, heart monitoring machines, and simple diagnostic machines that test for blood pressure or glucose content also use embedded systems.

The expansion of the Internet of Things (IoT) is leading to new trends in embedded systems for healthcare. In the future, patients will use wearable devices to track their vital signs with data regularly transmitted to their hospital or physician in real time. There will be no shortage of product development opportunities for embedded systems engineers that can use their skills to lower healthcare costs or improve access for patients.

The Future of Embedded Systems

Embedded systems are a major area of innovation that is expected to grow substantially on a per-year basis. Across industries, embedded systems engineers are deploying new products and technologies to increase safety and reduce costs.

In the automotive sector, we're seeing major technological growth in embedded systems as major manufacturers partner with leading technology companies to develop self-driving vehicles. The market for wearable medical devices is expanding rapidly, with an estimated growth rate of 18.5% through 2023. There is also a growing demand for "smart" home appliances and devices that can reduce energy consumption while offering convenience and features for homeowners.

Summary

The growing demand for "smart" devices across industries is creating a major area of opportunity for embedded systems engineers to develop their capabilities and launch new products. Embedded systems consist of a microcontroller with on-board memory, a power supply, and communication ports for transmitting data to other devices. Embedded software programs tell the microcontroller how to respond in real time to data collected from the environment through peripheral sensors and devices. Embedded systems are used to enhance safety, reduce costs, and offer convenience and cost-savings to customers in industries that include automotive, home/consumer electronics, communications, and healthcare.

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