An embedded system is a computer system designed to perform one or a few dedicated functions often with real-time computing constraints. It is embedded as part of a complete device often including hardware and mechanical parts. By contrast, a general-purpose computer, such as a personal computer (PC), is designed to be flexible and to meet a wide range of end-user needs. Embedded systems control many devices in common use today. Embedded systems are controlled by one or more main processing cores that are typically either microcontrollers or digital signal processors (DSP). The key characteristic, however, is being dedicated to handle a particular task, which may require very powerful processors. For example, air traffic control systems may usefully be viewed as embedded, even though they involve mainframe computers and dedicated regional and national networks between airports and radar sites. (Each radar probably includes one or more embedded systems of its own.) Since the embedded system is dedicated to specific tasks, design engineers can optimize it to reduce the size and cost of the product and increase the reliability and performance. Some embedded systems are mass-produced, benefiting from economies of scale. Physically, embedded systems range from portable devices such as digital watches and MP3 players, to large stationary installations like traffic lights, factory controllers, or the systems controlling nuclear power plants. Complexity varies from low, with a single microcontroller chip, to very high with multiple units, peripherals and networks mounted inside a large chassis or enclosure. In general, “embedded system” is not a strictly definable term, as most systems have some element of extensibility or programmability. For example, handheld computers share some elements with embedded systems such as the operating systems and microprocessors which power them, but they allow different applications to be loaded and peripherals to be connected. Moreover, even systems which don’t expose programmability as a primary feature generally need to support software updates. On a continuum from “general purpose” to “embedded”, large application systems will have subcomponents at most points even if the system as a whole is “designed to perform one or a few dedicated functions”, and is thus appropriate to call “embedded”.
Variety of embedded systems
Embedded systems span all aspects of modern life and there are many examples of their use.
Telecommunications systems employ numerous embedded systems from telephone switches for the network to mobile phones at the end-user. Computer networking uses dedicated routers and network bridges to route data.
Consumer electronics include personal digital assistants (PDAs), mp3 players, mobile phones, videogame consoles, digital cameras, DVD players, GPS receivers, and printers. Many household appliances, such as microwave ovens, washing machines and dishwashers, are including embedded systems to provide flexibility, efficiency and features. Advanced HVAC systems use networked thermostats to more accurately and efficiently control temperature that can change by time of day and season. Home automation uses wired- and wireless-networking that can be used to control lights, climate, security, audio/visual, surveillance, etc., all of which use embedded devices for sensing and controlling.
Transportation systems from flight to automobiles increasingly use embedded systems. New airplanes contain advanced avionics such as inertial guidance systems and GPS receivers that also have considerable safety requirements. Various electric motors — brushless DC motors, induction motors and DC motors — are using electric/electronic motor controllers. Automobiles, electric vehicles, and hybrid vehicles are increasingly using embedded systems to maximize efficiency and reduce pollution. Other automotive safety systems include anti-lock braking system (ABS), Electronic Stability Control (ESC/ESP), traction control (TCS) and automatic four-wheel drive.
Medical equipment is continuing to advance with more embedded systems for vital signs monitoring, electronic stethoscopes for amplifying sounds, and various medical imaging (PET, SPECT, CT, MRI) for non-invasive internal inspections.
In addition to commonly described embedded systems based on small computers, a new class of miniature wireless devices called motes are quickly gaining popularity as the field of wireless sensor networking rises. Wireless sensor networking, WSN, makes use of miniaturization made possible by advanced IC design to couple full wireless subsystems to sophisticated sensors, enabling people and companies to measure a myriad of things in the physical world and act on this information through IT monitoring and control systems. These motes are completely self contained, and will typically run off a battery source for many years before the batteries need to be changed or charged.