An embedded system refers to a combination of hardware and software or a fully functional computing system that performs a specific task within a larger system. Its capabilities can be programmable or customizable or fixed. An embedded system can be seen within industrial machines or robots, consumer electronics, agricultural and process industry devices, vehicles, medical equipment, cameras, household appliances, airplanes, vending machines, toys, and mobile devices.

In a car, an embedded system can be the airbag system that performs a specific function—deploy the airbags during a collision. The car is the big system that contains the embedded airbag system, along with many others.

Other interesting terms…

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Various embedded systems make up a bigger system. A car, for instance, has many embedded systems that include but are not limited to cruise control, backup sensors, suspension control, navigation systems, and our earlier example, airbag systems.

Types of Embedded Systems

In general, embedded systems can fall under four types, depending on their use. These are:

1. Real-Time Embedded Systems

These embedded systems produce a specific output within a given time frame. As such, their performance is time-based. They are ideal for so-called “mission-critical” tasks. Examples of these include airlock braking systems, pacemakers, aircraft control, and programmable logic controllers (PLCs) or industrial-grade computers typically used in manufacturing.

Real-time embedded systems can be further classified into:

  • Soft real-time embedded systems: For these systems, missing out on time constraints may be acceptable but undesirable. Examples include email systems and wireless routers.
  • Hard real-time embedded systems: For these systems, failing to meet time constraints is unacceptable as that can cause the loss of life such as in the case of pacemakers.

2. Standalone Embedded Systems

These embedded systems function by themselves and do not need a host system. They work by receiving inputs via sensors such as push buttons or keywords then processing them to produce desired outputs. Examples of standalone embedded systems include video game consoles, digital cameras, and microwave ovens.

3. Networked Embedded Systems

These embedded systems rely on network connectivity to carry out tasks. They need to be connected to networks such as the Internet, a wide area network (WAN), or a local area network (LAN). An excellent example of a LAN-connected embedded system is a home security system that comes with sensors connected via Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP).

4. Mobile Embedded Systems

These embedded systems are small computing systems that can be installed in portable devices such as mobile phones, MP3 players, and other gadgets. Due to their small size, they have limited memory and typically no graphical user interface (GUIs).

Applications of Embedded Systems

Despite their small size, embedded systems are used for different technologies in various industries, including:

1. Healthcare

Several types of medical equipment have embedded systems such as sensors and control mechanisms. Since human life depends on these machines, they need a sophisticated operating system (OS) and graphical user interface (GUI) to ensure easy operation.

2. Manufacturing

Most industrial robots have multiple embedded systems. These often take the form of sensors or automation systems to efficiently carry out monitoring and control functions.

3. Mobile Device Production

All mobile devices are made up of several embedded systems, too, including GUI software and hardware, an OS, cameras, microphones, and universal serial bus (USB) input/output (I/O) modules.

We see embedded systems everyday even if we don’t know it.