What is an Embedded System and How Does it Work?

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13 June, 2024

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From the smartphones that keep us connected to the cutting-edge medical devices that save lives, embedded systems are the platforms fueling today's technological innovations. These specialized computer systems are meticulously designed to perform dedicated tasks, seamlessly blending hardware and software to enable the functionalities that have become indispensable parts of our modern existence. The following guide unravels the fascinating realm of embedded systems, exploring their inner workings, diverse applications, the skills required to master this critical field, and why embedded systems engineering is one of the most sought-after professions of our time.

Embedded Systems: Definition & Overview

An embedded system is designed for specific control functions within a larger system, often with real-time computing constraints. It is embedded as a complete device with hardware and mechanical parts. Unlike a general-purpose computer, such as a personal computer that can perform numerous tasks depending on programming, Embedded systems are ubiquitous as they serve immediate functionalities, and are presented in everything from medical devices and automobiles to industrial machinery and aerospace systems.

How Embedded Systems Work?

Embedded systems work through the seamless integration of hardware and software components designed to perform a specific function or set of functions. The process commonly involves:

  • Sensing: Embedded systems use various sensors to collect data from the external environment, such as temperature, pressure, light, sound, or motion.
  • Processing: The collected data is processed by a microcontroller or microprocessor using pre-programmed algorithms and logic.
  • Decision-making: The system makes decisions or generates outputs to control or regulate the connected devices or components based on the processed data and pre-defined rules.
  • Actuation: The system sends signals to actuators, such as motors, valves, or displays, to perform the desired actions or provide feedback to the user or environment.
  • Communication: Many embedded systems have communication interfaces to exchange data with other systems, networks, or remote controllers, enabling monitoring, updates, or remote control.

The functionality of an embedded system is determined by its specific hardware components and the software programmed into its memory, which is often optimized for low power consumption, real-time performance, and reliable operation in challenging environments.

Types of Embedded Systems

Embedded systems can be classified into various types based on their characteristics, complexity, and applications:

Real-time embedded systems

Real-time embedded systems are designed to process data and respond to events within strict time constraints. They must be able to guarantee a response within a specified time frame, as a delayed response could lead to system failure or potentially dangerous situations. Examples include automotive engine control systems, aircraft avionics, and industrial control systems.

Stand-alone embedded systems

Stand-alone embedded systems are self-contained and operate independently without being connected to other systems or networks. Examples include microwave ovens, digital watches, and simple electronic toys. These systems typically have a specific purpose and are designed to perform a dedicated task or set of tasks.

Small-scale embedded systems

Small-scale embedded systems are relatively simple and have limited functionality, often designed for specific tasks. Examples include remote controls, digital thermometers, and simple household appliances. These systems typically have low computational requirements and may use microcontrollers or simple microprocessors.

Medium-scale embedded systems

Medium-scale embedded systems are more complex than small-scale systems and often have multiple components and functionalities. Examples include printers, copiers, and certain home entertainment systems. These systems may require more computational power, memory, and advanced input/output capabilities.

Large-scale embedded systems

Large-scale embedded systems are highly complex systems with numerous components and functionalities. Examples include aircraft flight control systems, large-scale industrial automation systems, and large medical imaging devices. These systems often require significant computational resources, high reliability, and advanced communication capabilities.

Networked embedded systems

Networked embedded systems are connected to other systems or networks, allowing them to communicate, share data, and be remotely controlled. Examples include smart home devices, industrial automation systems, and networked medical devices. These systems often require communication protocols and security measures to ensure reliable and secure data transmission.

Mobile embedded systems

Mobile embedded systems are designed to operate while in motion or in various locations. They often have constraints on size, weight, and power consumption. Examples include smartphones, wearable devices, and portable navigation systems. These systems may rely on wireless communication technologies and energy-efficient design.

Embedded systems in consumer electronics

Many consumer electronics devices, such as smartphones, tablets, smart TVs, game consoles, and home appliances, incorporate embedded systems to provide various functionalities and user interfaces. These systems often prioritize user experience, connectivity, and power efficiency.

Embedded systems in medical devices

Embedded systems are widely used in medical devices, such as pacemakers, defibrillators, patient monitoring systems, and medical imaging equipment. These systems must meet rigid safety and reliability standards while providing accurate and real-time data processing and control capabilities.

Embedded systems in automotive applications

Automotive embedded systems are critical components in modern vehicles, controlling various functions such as engine management, braking systems, infotainment systems, and advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). These systems must be highly reliable, real-time, and capable of handling complex data processing and communication tasks.

Routing Workflow of an Embedded Engineer

An embedded engineer's workflow involves a structured routing process to ensure efficient and effective development of embedded systems. This process typically includes:

  • Requirement Analysis: The engineer starts by gathering and analyzing the requirements of the project. This involves understanding the desired functionalities, performance criteria, and constraints.
  • System Design: Next, the engineer designs the system architecture, selecting appropriate hardware components (microcontrollers, sensors, actuators) and software tools. This stage involves creating schematics and flowcharts to outline the system's operation.
  • Implementation: During implementation, the engineer writes the firmware or software that will run on the embedded system. This involves coding in languages such as C or C++, and integrating various modules and libraries.
  • Testing and Debugging: After implementation, the system undergoes rigorous testing and debugging. The engineer uses various tools and techniques to identify and fix issues, ensuring the system operates as intended.
  • Integration: Once tested, the system is integrated with other components or systems. This may involve interfacing with external devices or networks, requiring the engineer to manage communication protocols and data exchange.
  • Validation: The integrated system is validated against the initial requirements. This step ensures that all specifications are met and that the system performs reliably under expected operating conditions.
  • Deployment: Finally, the embedded system is deployed for use. The engineer may also be involved in creating user documentation and providing support during the initial deployment phase.
  • Maintenance: Post-deployment, the engineer monitors the system’s performance and addresses any issues that arise. This may involve updating the firmware, fixing bugs, and optimizing performance.

This structured workflow helps ensure that embedded systems are developed systematically, meeting all functional and performance requirements efficiently.

Examples of Embedded Systems in Real Life

Embedded systems are ubiquitous in our daily lives, integrated into various devices and systems across various domains. Here are some real-life examples of embedded systems:

  • Smartphones: Embedded systems power the various functions of smartphones, including touchscreen interfaces, cameras, sensors, and wireless connectivity.
  • Smartwatches: Wearable devices like smartwatches rely on embedded systems for tracking fitness metrics, displaying notifications, and providing other smart features.
  • Automotive control systems: Embedded systems are extensively used in modern vehicles for engine management, safety systems, infotainment, and advanced driver assistance features.
  • Digital cameras: Embedded systems control the image sensor, autofocus, image processing, and storage functions in digital cameras.
  • Home automation systems: Systems that control lighting, climate, security, and other home automation functions are built on embedded systems.
  • Medical devices: Embedded systems are critical components in medical devices like pacemakers, insulin pumps, and patient monitoring equipment, ensuring precise control and data processing.
  • Smart TVs: Modern smart TVs incorporate embedded systems for processing multimedia content, providing internet connectivity, and enabling smart features like voice control.
  • Drones: Embedded systems control the flight dynamics, sensors, and communication systems in drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
  • Industrial robots: Embedded systems control the precise movements, sensors, and actuators in industrial robots used in manufacturing and automation.
  • Smart appliances: Embedded systems enable smart features and connectivity in household appliances like refrigerators, washing machines, and ovens.
  • Network routers: Routers rely on embedded systems to manage network traffic, apply security rules, and facilitate device communication.
  • Fitness trackers: Wearable fitness trackers use embedded systems to monitor and record activity levels, heart rate, and other health metrics.
  • Traffic light control systems: Embedded systems are used to control the timing and coordination of traffic lights at intersections.
  • ATMs: Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) utilize embedded systems for secure financial transactions, user interfaces, and communication with banking networks.
  • Wearable health monitors: Embedded systems in wearable devices like fitness trackers and smartwatches enable continuous health monitoring and data analysis.
  • Smart meters: Smart electricity, water, and gas meters use embedded systems for accurate utility usage monitoring and data transmission.
  • Security systems: Home and commercial security systems, including surveillance cameras and access control systems, are powered by embedded systems.
  • Smart Home: Embedded systems are at the core of many smart home devices, such as smart speakers, smart locks, and smart lighting systems, enabling automation and voice control.
  • Gaming consoles: Modern gaming consoles incorporate embedded systems for graphics processing, user input, and multimedia functionality.
  • GPS navigation systems: Embedded systems in GPS devices process location data, calculate routes, and provide turn-by-turn navigation instructions.

 

These are just a few examples that illustrate the widespread presence of embedded systems in our daily lives, enhancing the functionality, efficiency, and intelligence of various devices and systems.

Embedded Systems Structure

Embedded systems typically consist of several key components that work together to perform their intended functions:

Hardware

The hardware component of an embedded system includes various physical components such as microprocessors, microcontrollers, memory chips, input/output devices, and other peripheral components. These components are carefully

selected and integrated to meet the specific requirements of the system, such as performance, power consumption, and size constraints.

Memory

Embedded systems typically utilize various types of memory, such as random access memory (RAM) for temporary data storage and read-only memory (ROM) for storing permanent program code and data. Some systems may also include non-volatile memory, such as flash memory, for storing configuration settings or user data that needs to be retained even when the power is turned off.

Software and firmware

The software and firmware components of an embedded system are responsible for controlling the hardware and implementing the desired functionality. This includes low-level software, such as device drivers and hardware abstraction layers, as well as application-specific software and algorithms. The software is often optimized for efficiency, reliability, and real-time performance.

Microcontroller

Microcontrollers are compact integrated circuits that combine a processor, memory, and input/output peripherals on a single chip. They are widely used in embedded systems due to their low cost, low power consumption, and compact size. Microcontrollers are programmed to perform specific tasks and control various components of the embedded system.

Real-time operating system

Many embedded systems require a real-time operating system (RTOS) to manage system resources and ensure predictable and timely responses to events and interrupts. RTOSs are designed to prioritize real-time tasks and provide deterministic behavior, which is crucial for time-critical applications such as industrial control systems or automotive systems.

Sensor

Sensors are devices that measure physical quantities or environmental conditions and convert them into electrical signals that can be processed by the embedded system. Examples include temperature sensors, pressure sensors, proximity sensors, and image sensors. Sensors provide the embedded system with the necessary data to make informed decisions and take appropriate actions.

Power supply

Embedded systems require a reliable and efficient power supply to operate correctly. The power supply component provides the necessary electrical power to the various components of the embedded system, often with specific voltage and current requirements. Power management techniques are often employed to optimize power consumption and extend battery life in battery-powered embedded systems.

Actuator

Actuators are devices that convert electrical signals from the embedded system into physical actions or outputs. Examples include motors, valves, displays, and speakers. Actuators allow the embedded system to interact with the physical world and perform desired actions based on the processed sensor data and programmed logic.

Communication interface

Many embedded systems require communication interfaces to exchange data with other devices or systems. Common communication interfaces include serial interfaces (e.g., UART, SPI, I2C), wired networking interfaces (e.g., Ethernet), and wireless communication interfaces (e.g., Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee). These interfaces enable data transfer, remote monitoring, and control capabilities.

Now let’s see how this continuous workflow is depicted in the following example:
Developing a Smart Thermostat

  • Debriefing: a home automation company wants to develop a smart thermostat that could provide precise temperature control, energy efficiency, and remote accessibility. The device needs to integrate with existing HVAC systems and be controlled via a mobile app.

Getting into Gear

  • Requirement Analysis: The embedded engineer begins by gathering detailed requirements, such as temperature control accuracy, user interface preferences, energy consumption limits, and compatibility with various HVAC systems. The requirements also included Wi-Fi connectivity for remote control via a mobile app.
  • System Design: The engineer designs the system architecture, selecting a suitable microcontroller with built-in Wi-Fi, temperature sensors, and relays for controlling the HVAC system. Schematics and flowcharts are created to outline the data flow and control logic.
  • Implementation: The firmware is developed using C++, with separate modules for temperature sensing, HVAC control, Wi-Fi communication, and user interface management. The mobile app interface also needs to be designed to communicate with the thermostat via a RESTful API.
  • Testing and Debugging: The system undergoes extensive testing. The engineer uses simulation tools to test the control logic and debug the firmware using an in-circuit emulator. Field tests are conducted to ensure accurate temperature control and reliable Wi-Fi connectivity.
  • Integration: The thermostat is integrated with various HVAC systems to ensure compatibility. The engineer manages communication protocols to ensure seamless data exchange between the thermostat and the HVAC systems.
  • Validation: The system is validated against the initial requirements, with a focus on temperature accuracy, energy efficiency, and remote control functionality. User feedback from beta testers is incorporated to refine the user interface and functionality.
  • Deployment: The smart thermostat is deployed to the market. The engineer provides detailed user documentation and training materials to support installation and use.
  • Maintenance: Post-deployment, the engineer monitors the thermostat’s performance through user feedback and remote diagnostics. Firmware updates are released to address any bugs and improve functionality.

What results are expected by applying this workflow properly?

  • Increased Energy Efficiency: The smart thermostat optimizes HVAC usage, resulting in significant energy savings for users.
  • Enhanced User Experience: The user-friendly interface and reliable remote control functionality populate positive feedback.
  • Market Success: Presenting the upgraded smart thermostat as an enhanced product in the home automation market, boosting the company's reputation and sales.

What Makes Embedded Systems Engineer One of The Most In-Demand Jobs?

Embedded systems engineers are in high demand due to the proliferation of smart devices, the Internet of Things (IoT), and the increasing complexity of modern systems across various industries. Several factors contribute to the growing demand for embedded systems engineers:

  1. Technological advancements: The rapid pace of technological advancements and the development of new and sophisticated gadgets, devices, and systems require skilled professionals who can design, develop, and maintain embedded systems.

  2. Consumer electronics: The consumer electronics market is constantly evolving, with new products and features emerging regularly. Embedded systems engineers are essential in developing and integrating the embedded systems that power these devices, ensuring seamless user experiences and efficient performance.

  3. Internet of Things (IoT): The IoT revolution has led to the integration of embedded systems into a wide range of devices, enabling them to connect, communicate, and exchange data. This has created a significant demand for embedded systems engineers who can develop and manage these connected devices and systems.

  4. Automation and control systems: Embedded systems play a crucial role in industrial automation, process control, and manufacturing systems, driving the need for engineers skilled in these technologies.

  5. Automotive industry: The automotive industry relies heavily on embedded systems for various functions, including engine control, safety systems, infotainment, and advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). As vehicles become more technologically advanced, the demand for embedded systems engineers in this sector continues to grow.

  6. Healthcare and medical devices: The healthcare industry extensively uses embedded systems in medical devices, patient monitoring systems, and healthcare equipment, requiring skilled engineers to develop and maintain these critical systems.

  7. Cybersecurity: As embedded systems become more prevalent and interconnected, ensuring their security and protecting them from cyber threats is a growing concern. Embedded systems engineers with expertise in cybersecurity are highly sought after in the modern technological scene.

  8. Emerging technologies: New and emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and 5G communication, often rely on embedded systems for their implementation and integration, creating further demand for skilled professionals in this field.

With the increasing complexity of embedded systems and their widespread adoption across various industries, the demand for embedded systems engineers is expected to climb, making it a highly lucrative career path.

 

Skills Required to Be Embedded Systems Developer

Embedded systems developers require a diverse set of skills to design, develop, and maintain embedded systems effectively. Here are some of the key skills required:

  • Programming languages (C, C++): Strong proficiency in programming languages like C and C++ is essential, as they are widely used in embedded systems development.
  • RTOS: Knowledge of real-time operating systems (RTOS) and their use in embedded systems is crucial for developing systems with real-time constraints.
  • Low-level programming: Embedded systems often require low-level programming skills, such as working with assembly language, memory management, and interrupt handling.
  • Debugging: Proficiency in debugging techniques and tools specific to embedded systems is necessary for identifying and resolving issues in hardware and software.
  • Embedded Linux: Many embedded systems are based on embedded Linux distributions, so knowledge of Linux kernel development and customization is valuable.
  • Microcontroller programming: Familiarity with microcontroller architectures and the ability to program them using low-level languages and tools is a fundamental skill for embedded systems developers.
  • Hardware-software integration: Embedded systems developers must have a solid understanding of both hardware and software components and the ability to integrate them seamlessly.
  • Communication protocols (Networking): Understanding communication protocols like UART, SPI, I2C, Ethernet, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth is essential for enabling data transfer and communication between embedded systems and other devices or networks.
  • Version control (Git): Proficiency in version control systems like Git is crucial for collaborative development and maintaining code repositories.

In addition to these technical skills, embedded systems developers should possess strong problem-solving abilities, attention to detail, and the ability to work in multidisciplinary teams. They should also stay up-to-date with the latest trends, technologies, and best practices in the field of embedded systems.

Become a Certified Embedded Systems Engineer with EMB Academy

Embedded Academy offers a comprehensive certification program designed to equip aspiring professionals with the knowledge and skills required to excel in the field of embedded systems engineering. Our program covers a wide range of topics, including:

- Fundamentals of embedded systems

- Microcontroller programming

- Real-time operating systems

- Hardware-software co-design

- Embedded system architectures

- Communication protocols and networking

- Software development tools and debugging

- Embedded system security

- Industry-specific applications

Our certification program combines theoretical knowledge with hands-on practical experience, allowing you to apply your learning to real-world projects and scenarios. You'll have access to a diverse range of industry-standard tools and development environments, ensuring you gain valuable practical experience.

Throughout the program, you'll be guided by experienced instructors who are actively working in the embedded systems industry. Their expertise and insights will provide you with a deep understanding of the latest trends, best practices, and industry standards.

Upon successful completion of the program, you'll receive a globally recognized certification that validates your knowledge and skills in embedded systems engineering. This certification can significantly enhance your career prospects and open doors to exciting opportunities in various industries.

Whether you're a beginner, a seasoned professional, or seeking a career transition, EMB Academy's certification program offers a comprehensive and practical learning experience to help you become a proficient embedded systems engineer.

Enroll today and take the first step towards a rewarding career in this dynamic and in-demand field.

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