Everything about embedded systems
Tuesday 31 January 2023
Not so long ago a popular journalist predicted that soon there would be as many microprocessors in the world as there were people. When we consider all the devices we currently use every single day in our house, our car, at work, we can only say: he was right. We are surrounded by numerous processors. There is hardly a device that doesn’t carry a processor. These devices, small and large, are all considered embedded systems: each has a specific dedicated and smart function. What makes it even more compelling is that the pervasiveness of devices combined with their ability to communicate, creates an ever-increasing demand for more functionalities. Embedded systems can help solve many relevant challenges like home care support, safe driving of your car, monitoring and alarms in public spaces and the improvement of agricultural and horticultural production processes. This is what the future has in store for us.
What is an embedded system exactly?
An embedded system typically collects input data, performs a specific operation on the data readings, and then acts according to the programmed functionality. Think of the room thermostat in your home. In the old days, a mercury-based temperature sensor acted as a switch to turn your heater on or off. This is a very clever and accurate design, but not an embedded system. Next-generation thermostats monitor the thermal response of the room, the weather conditions outside as well as the desired temperature inside and then send the readings to the heater. Given the technological developments of today, embedded systems are going to be all-encompassing.
Why are embedded systems so relevant?
An urgent question is: is the current trend to make daily-used devices smarter really necessary? The answer is simply: yes. The world population is growing, people are getting older and as a result of global mobility, the interaction between people worldwide is increasing. So, we need more people to care for other people. We need to travel more or find other ways of interaction or mobility. And we travel with more people at the same time. This cannot be supervised or managed just by mobilizing more people. Automation is needed for the more recurring and labor-intensive routines whenever possible. For instance, to reduce the workload of physicians, it is helpful when patients can be monitored remotely. Or to drive autonomously on motorways for safety reasons and more efficient road usage. Or to provide residential support for the elderly to live longer independently by using home automation. In general, it is necessary to develop means to support people in their everyday life to guarantee their independence.
The evolution of the thermostat is a relatively simple example, but it clearly demonstrates the direction we are heading. When it is possible to sense and register the temperature of a room, a person’s physical signals can also be picked up, like heart rates (ECG), brain activity (EEG) and muscle tension (EMG). Wireless connections via Bluetooth and Wi-Fi commonly form a bridge between a person, a house or factory, and a remote service. The available communication bandwidth may be a limiting factor. A room thermostat measures a temperature change with a time constant of minutes, generating small amounts of data. An ECG monitor however, samples multiple sensors more than 250 times per second. Therefore, that type of embedded device must locally process data to reduce the required bandwidth for effective communication. It also has an immediate effect on power consumption: wireless communication implies in many cases also a battery operation to limit the power consumption of an embedded device. That is why creating an embedded design is always a challenge: it is a matter of finding the right balance between functionality, processing power, communication bandwidth, and energy budget.
Trends in Embedded Systems
A current trend is the interaction between connected embedded devices and remote services. An “embedded device” is also referred to as “edge device” in relation to “cloud computing” as a remote service. Years ago, the German government introduced the term “Industry 4.0” to stimulate and accelerate the collaboration of systems at a larger scale than just an automated production line. It was meant to result in a connection between complete factories: the world as one gigantic factory. This all starts at the lowest level with a connected embedded device. It is irrelevant whether it considers a factory, home systems, or medical infrastructure in a hospital. It is all about connecting all edge devices with cloud services. That makes sense: An embedded device has limited computational power, whereas a cloud server has virtually unlimited resources, but limited capabilities to sense. So, a combination of both is needed to create a meaningful and future-proof system.
- A clouded future
Connecting devices to the cloud, raises the question what is the right task for the embedded system or edge device. Now, have a look again at the simple thermostat mentioned before. As a result of the energy crisis, heating becomes more challenging. Soon, every room will have its own temperature, sending readings to a cloud server. Combined with other environmental parameters and depending on the energy resources available, heating controlled in such a manner consumes the least amount of energy to reach a certain comfort level. This scenario is applicable to many more systems.
- Small, smaller, smallest
A consequence of these developments is that the electronics of an edge device become more complex, and it will continue to get more complex. As chip geometries continue to get smaller, energy consumption keeps going down and the cost per device decreases, complex edge devices become more and more affordable and widely available. It is key to select the right set of processing resources on a circuit board and to combine this with the right software functionality. This way, an optimum is found in terms of size, power consumption, cost, and functionality. By combining data acquisition, signal processing, visualization, control and communication into a single embedded device the edge functionality can be explored with the full backing of cloud infrastructure.
- Embedded intelligence
The recent developments in machine learning and artificial intelligence give an extra boost to pervasive computing. Development and training of AI algorithms are typically performed in the cloud. Deployment of the trained AI algorithms can materialize on a cloud server, on edge devices, or in a combination. It is like detecting objects using smart edge cameras to reduce communication bandwidth and recognizing objects using cloud-deployed algorithms. Such software technology developments will enable new applications and trigger further hardware developments. Traditionally, technologies are linked to specific sectors or domains. A technology developed for an aircraft is considered different from a similar functionality in a medical application. We see that, although systems become more complex and have more functionalities, its technology becomes more similar.
Embedded systems according to TOPIC
TOPIC strongly believes that the further fusion of functionality in edge devices will continue. Today’s new feature is a commodity tomorrow. Combining the vast pool of standard functionalities into a meaningful product requires broad experience and the ability to re-use functionality. That is why we re-use the experiences we gain in for instance medical projects in autonomous mobile robots (AMR). We consider system-level engineering to be a core competence to materialize an embedded device. In addition, certified development processes are required to build e.g. applications for medical purposes. It is our ambition to apply the latest silicon technologies and programming methods to embedded devices, including the deployment of artificial intelligence-based algorithms. As a result of the ever-increasing complexity of systems, TOPIC focuses on keeping up with relevant developments in embedded system design and establishing strong partnerships with other specialists in mechanical and optical domains. This way, we can not only develop today’s room thermostat, but also tomorrow’s climate control system.
Do you want to learn more about Embedded systems and how they can benefit your development? Feel free to contact us via firstname.lastname@example.org. Or check the following pages on our website to learn more about our expertise and showcases: https://topic.nl/en/expertises and https://topic.nl/en/showcases.