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Embedded Systems

Embedded System Definition

An embedded system is a microprocessor- or microcontroller-based system of hardware and software designed to perform dedicated functions within a larger mechanical or electrical system.

Embedded System diagram showing CPU at the core of various other technological elements.
Image from Swathi Prabhala


What is an Embedded System?

An embedded system is a microprocessor-based computer hardware system with software that is designed to perform a dedicated function, either as an independent system or as a part of a large system. At the core is an integrated circuit designed to carry out computation for real-time operations.

Complexities range from a single microcontroller to a suite of processors with connected peripherals and networks; from no user interface to complex graphical user interfaces. The complexity of an embedded system varies significantly depending on the task for which it is designed.

Embedded system applications range from digital watches and microwaves to hybrid vehicles and avionics. As much as 98 percent of all microprocessors manufactured are used in embedded systems.

How an Embedded System Works

Embedded systems are managed by microcontrollers or digital signal processors (DSP), application-specific integrated circuits (ASIC), field-programmable gate arrays (FPGA), GPU technology, and gate arrays. These processing systems are integrated with components dedicated to handling electric and/or mechanical interfacing.

Embedded systems programming instructions, referred to as firmware, are stored in read-only memory or flash memory chips, running with limited computer hardware resources. Embedded systems connect with the outside world through peripherals, linking input and output devices.

Basic Structure of an Embedded System

The basic structure of an embedded system includes the following components:

  • Sensor: The sensor measures and converts the physical quantity to an electrical signal, which can then be read by an embedded systems engineer or any electronic instrument. A sensor stores the measured quantity to the memory.
  • A-D Converter: An analog-to-digital converter converts the analog signal sent by the sensor into a digital signal.
    Processor & ASICs: Processors assess the data to measure the output and store it to the memory.
  • D-A Converter: A digital-to-analog converter changes the digital data fed by the processor to analog data
  • Actuator: An actuator compares the output given by the D-A Converter to the actual output stored and stores the approved output.

History of Embedded Operating Systems

The first modern, real-time embedded computing system was the Apollo Guidance Computer, developed in the 1960s by Dr. Charles Stark Draper at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the Apollo Program. The Apollo Guidance Computer was designed to collect data automatically and provide mission-critical calculations for the Apollo Command Module and Lunar Module.

In 1971, Intel released the first commercially available microprocessor unit -- the Intel 4004 -- an early microprocessor that still required support chips and external memory; in 1978 the National Engineering Manufacturers Association released a standard for programmable microcontrollers, improving the embedded system design; and by the early 1980s, memory, input and output system components had been integrated into the same chip as the processor, forming a microcontroller.

The microcontroller-based embedded system would go on to be incorporated into every aspect of consumers’ daily lives, from credit card readers and cell phones, to traffic lights and thermostats.

Future Trends in Embedded Systems

The industry for embedded systems is expected to continue growing rapidly, driven by the continued development of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR), machine learning , deep learning, and the Internet of Things (IoT). The cognitive embedded system will be at the heart of such trends as: reduced energy consumption, improved security for embedded devices, cloud connectivity and mesh networking, deep learning applications, and visualization tools with real time data.

According to a 2018 report published by QYResearch, the global market for the embedded systems industry was valued at $68.9 billion in 2017 and is expected to rise to $105.7 billion by the end of 2025.

HEAVY.AI Data Integration

GPU-powered embedded system applications need an accelerated analytics platform. The HEAVY.IDB open source GPU database acts as a hot cache for analytical datasets and is capable of ingesting millions of records a second.

Today’s analysts and data scientists are challenged with a growing ecosystem of data sources and warehouses, making big data integration more complex than ever. Your data lives in many data warehouses and data lakes; it continually flows in through streams or rests as point-in-time files. Regardless of the source, HEAVY.AI easily handles data ingestion of millions of records per second into the iDB open source SQL engine.