An embedded system is a special-purpose computer system designed to perform one or a few dedicated functions, often with real-time computing constraints. It is usually embedded as part of a complete device including hardware and mechanical parts. In contrast, a general-purpose computer, such as a personal computer, can do many different tasks depending on programming. Embedded systems control many of the common devices in use today.
Since the embedded system is dedicated to specific tasks, design engineers can optimize it, reducing the size and cost of the product, or increasing 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 an exactly defined term, as many systems have some element of programmability. For example, Handheld computers share some elements with embedded systems — such as the operating systems and microprocessors which power them — but are not truly embedded systems, because they allow different applications to be loaded and peripherals to be connected.
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, 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 such as anti-lock braking system (ABS), Electronic Stability Control (ESC/ESP), 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 miniturization made possible by advanced IC design to couple full wireless subsystems to sophisticated sensor, 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.
One of the first recognizably modern embedded systems was the Apollo Guidance Computer, developed by Charles Stark Draper at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory. At the project's inception, the Apollo guidance computer was considered the riskiest item in the Apollo project as it employed the then newly developed monolithic integrated circuits to reduce the size and weight. An early mass-produced embedded system was the Autonetics D-17 guidance computer for the Minuteman missile, released in 1961. It was built from transistor logic and had a hard disk for main memory. When the Minuteman II went into production in 1966, the D-17 was replaced with a new computer that was the first high-volume use of integrated circuits. This program alone reduced prices on quad nand gate ICs from $1000/each to $3/each, permitting their use in commercial products.
Since these early applications in the 1960s, embedded systems have come down in price and there has been a dramatic rise in processing power and functionality. The first microprocessor for example, the Intel 4004, was designed for calculators and other small systems but still required many external memory and support chips. In 1978 National Engineering Manufacturers Association released a "standard" for programmable microcontrollers, including almost any computer-based controllers, such as single board computers, numerical, and event-based controllers.
As the cost of microprocessors and microcontrollers fell it became feasible to replace expensive knob-based analog components such as potentiometers and variable capacitors with up/down buttons or knobs read out by a microprocessor even in some consumer products. By the mid-1980s, most of the common previously external system components had been integrated into the same chip as the processor and this modern form of the microcontroller allowed an even more widespread use, which by the end of the decade were the norm rather than the exception for almost all electronics devices.
The integration of microcontrollers has further increased the applications for which embedded systems are used into areas where traditionally a computer would not have been considered. A general purpose and comparatively low-cost microcontroller may often be programmed to fulfill the same role as a large number of separate components. Although in this context an embedded system is usually more complex than a traditional solution, most of the complexity is contained within the microcontroller itself. Very few additional components may be needed and most of the design effort is in the software. The intangible nature of software makes it much easier to prototype and test new revisions compared with the design and construction of a new circuit not using an embedded processor.
Embedded systems range from no user interface at all — dedicated only to one task — to complex graphical user interfaces that resemble modern computer desktop operating systems.
Handheld systems often have a screen with a "joystick button" for a pointing device.
The rise of the World Wide Web has given embedded designers another quite different option: providing a web page interface over a network connection. This avoids the cost of a sophisticated display, yet provides complex input and display capabilities when needed, on another computer. This is successful for remote, permanently installed equipment such as Pan-Tilt-Zoom cameras and network routers.
Embedded processors can be broken into two broad categories: ordinary microprocessors (μP) and microcontrollers (μC), which have many more peripherals on chip, reducing cost and size. Contrasting to the personal computer and server markets, a fairly large number of basic CPU architectures are used; there are Von Neumann as well as various degrees of Harvard architectures, RISC as well as non-RISC and VLIW; word lengths vary from 4-bit to 64-bits and beyond (mainly in DSP processors) although the most typical remain 8/16-bit. Most architectures come in a large number of different variants and shapes, many of which are also manufactured by several different companies.
A long but still not exhaustive list of common architectures are: 65816, 65C02, 68HC08, 68HC11, 68k, 8051, ARM, AVR, AVR32, Blackfin, C167, Coldfire, COP8, eZ8, eZ80, FR-V, H8, HT48, M16C, M32C, MIPS, MSP430, PIC, PowerPC, R8C, SHARC, ST6, SuperH, TLCS-47, TLCS-870, TLCS-900, Tricore, V850, x86, XE8000, Z80, etc.
In certain applications, where small size is not a primary concern, the components used may be compatible with those used in general purpose computers. Boards such as the VIA EPIA range help to bridge the gap by being PC-compatible but highly integrated, physically smaller or have other attributes making them attractive to embedded engineers. The advantage of this approach is that low-cost commodity components may be used along with the same software development tools used for general software development. Systems built in this way are still regarded as embedded since they are integrated into larger devices and fulfill a single role. Examples of devices that may adopt this approach are ATMs and arcade machines.
Software tools can come from several sources:
As the complexity of embedded systems grows, higher level tools and operating systems are migrating into machinery where it makes sense. For example, cellphones, personal digital assistants and other consumer computers often need significant software that is purchased or provided by a person other than the manufacturer of the electronics. In these systems, an open programming environment such as Linux, NetBSD, OSGi or Embedded Java is required so that the third-party software provider can sell to a large market.
Embedded Debugging may be performed at different levels, depending on the facilities available. From simplest to most sophisticated they can be roughly grouped into the following areas:
Unless restricted to external debugging, the programmer can typically load and run software through the tools, view the code running in the processor, and start or stop its operation. The view of the code may be as assembly code or source-code.
Because an embedded system is often composed of a wide variety of elements, the debugging strategy may vary. For instance, debugging a software- (and microprocessor-) centric embedded system is different from debugging an embedded system where most of the processing is performed by peripherals (DSP, FPGA, co-processor). An increasing number of embedded systems today use more than one single processor core. A common problem with multi-core development is the proper synchronization of software execution. In such a case, the embedded system design may wish to check the data traffic on the busses between the processor cores, which requires very low-level debugging, at signal/bus level, with a logic analyzer, for instance.
Embedded systems often reside in machines that are expected to run continuously for years without errors, and in some cases recover by themselves if an error occurs. Therefore the software is usually developed and tested more carefully than that for personal computers, and unreliable mechanical moving parts such as disk drives, switches or buttons are avoided.
Specific reliability issues may include:
A variety of techniques are used, sometimes in combination, to recover from errors -- both software bugs such as memory leaks, and also soft errors in the hardware:
For low-volume or prototype embedded systems, general purpose computers may be adapted by limiting the programs or by replacing the operating system with a real-time operating system.
There are several different types of software architecture in common use.
In this design, the software simply has a loop. The loop calls subroutines, each of which manages a part of the hardware or software.
Some embedded systems are predominantly interrupt controlled. This means that tasks performed by the system are triggered by different kinds of events. An interrupt could be generated for example by a timer in a predefined frequency, or by a serial port controller receiving a byte.
These kinds of systems are used if event handlers need low latency and the event handlers are short and simple.
Usually these kinds of systems run a simple task in a main loop also, but this task is not very sensitive to unexpected delays.
Sometimes the interrupt handler will add longer tasks to a queue structure. Later, after the interrupt handler has finished, these tasks are executed by the main loop. This method brings the system close to a multitasking kernel with discrete processes.
The advantages and disadvantages are very similar to the control loop, except that adding new software is easier, by simply writing a new task, or adding to the queue-interpreter.
As any code can potentially damage the data of another task (except in larger systems using an MMU) programs must be carefully designed and tested, and access to shared data must be controlled by some synchronization strategy, such as message queues, semaphores or a non-blocking synchronization scheme.
Because of these complexities, it is common for organizations to buy a real-time operating system, allowing the application programmers to concentrate on device functionality rather than operating system services, at least for large systems; smaller systems often cannot afford the overhead associated with a generic real time system, due to limitations regarding memory size, performance, and/or battery life.
In general, microkernels succeed when the task switching and intertask communication is fast, and fail when they are slow.
Exokernels communicate efficiently by normal subroutine calls. The hardware, and all the software in the system are available to, and extensible by application programmers.
Despite the increased cost in hardware, this type of embedded system is increasing in popularity, especially on the more powerful embedded devices such as Wireless Routers and GPS Navigation Systems. Here are some of the reasons: