Embedded Systems Explained

Embedded systems are found in most modern electronic devices and are a crucial component. But what are embedded systems, how do they work and what applications are they used for?

What is an embedded system?

An embedded system is a computer system comprised of a combination of hardware and software designed to perform a specific function. It often functions within a larger system, controlling a single function within a larger multi-function device. Embedded systems can be programmable or have a fixed functionality. 

Embedded systems may not have a user interface, such as those designed to perform a single task within a device. However, others such as those used in mobile devices will have complex UIs known as graphical user interfaces that include buttons, LEDs and touchscreen technology.

Because embedded systems usually only perform a single function, they are very low-power and small, making their integration with other components into larger devices very easy.

How do embedded systems work?

Embedded systems are essentially low-power-consuming small computers that function as part of a larger device or system.  

Embedded systems are composed of a processor, memory, a power supply and communication ports. It is these ports that communicate with other embedded systems within the device. The data communicated is interpreted by software highly specific to the embedded system’s function, and stored in the memory.

The processor in an embedded system can be a microcontroller or a microprocessor. The difference between these components is that microprocessors need more support circuitry due to the memory and peripherals not being included on the chip, using separate integrated circuits instead. Microcontrollers, on the other hand, have these integrated onto the chip. 

Different types of embedded systems

There are different types of embedded systems, which can be defined by their performance requirements (small, medium, or sophisticated-scale), or by their functional requirements, such as:

  • Mobile embedded systems – designed to be small and portable.
  • Network embedded systems – connected to a network to provide output to other systems.
  • Standalone embedded systems – not reliant on a host system.
  • Real-time embedded systems – provide the required output in a defined window. These types of embedded systems are essential for certain medical, military and industrial devices.

What are embedded systems used for?

Embedded systems can be found in most modern technologies. They are commonly used in industrial machines, medical equipment, consumer electronics, automobiles, cameras, digital watches, mobile devices, aeroplanes and much more.

Some devices contain many embedded systems, such as mobile phones, where there are separate embedded systems for the GUI software and hardware, the operating system, the camera, the microphone, sensors, and the USB modules.

Future of embedded systems

While embedded systems are already widely used, they are expected to become even more prevalent because of their use in new and expanding industries. Multiple embedded systems work together in technology such as drones, IoT devices, wearables, 3D printers and smart technology across various sectors. 

That concludes our explanation of embedded systems. They are incredibly useful components that we can thank for the multi-functionality of many of the electronic devices we use every day.

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