An embedded system is a computer system designed for specific control functions within a larger system, 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 contain processing cores that are either microcontrollers or digital signal processors (DSP). The key characteristic, however, is being dedicated to handle a particular task. 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. 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.
Variety of embedded systems
Embedded systems are widespread in consumer, industrial, commercial and military applications.
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, include 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 — use electric/electronic motor controllers. Automobiles, electric vehicles, and hybrid vehicles increasingly use 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.
Embedded systems are especially suited for use in transportation, fire safety, safety and security, medical applications and life critical systems as these systems can be isolated from hacking and thus be more reliable. For fire safety, the systems can be designed to have greater ability to handle higher temperatures and continue to operate. In dealing with security, the embedded systems can be self-sufficient and be able to deal with cut electrical and communication systems.
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.
Processors in embedded systems
Embedded processors can be broken into two broad categories. Ordinary microprocessors (μP) use separate integrated circuits for memory and peripherals. Microcontrollers (μC) have many more peripherals on chip, reducing power consumption, size and cost. In contrast to the personal computer market, many different basic CPU architectures are used, since software is custom-developed for an application and is not a commodity product installed by the end user. Both Von Neumann as well as various degrees of Harvard architectures are used. RISC as well as non-RISC processors are found. Word lengths vary from 4-bit to 64-bits and beyond, 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, 78K0R/78K0, 8051, ARM, AVR, AVR32, Blackfin, C167, Coldfire, COP8, Cortus APS3, eZ8, eZ80, FR-V, H8, HT48, M16C, M32C, MIPS, MSP430, PIC, PowerPC, R8C, RL78, SHARC, SPARC, ST6, SuperH, TLCS-47, TLCS-870, TLCS-900, TriCore, V850, x86, XE8000, Z80, AsAP and others.