What are embedded systems? Characteristics, architecture, and others

Nowadays, everywhere we look around, we can find electronics. From the small tea maker, our moms use to those high-end gaming rigs, electronics power almost everything under the sun. Each of the electronic gadgets makes our life easier, and depending upon how easy they make our lives, such products are also available at different prices. Keeping the price thing apart, almost all the digital electronic gadgets we use has some basic properties. Yes, we mostly use digital electronics nowadays as they are more precise, consumes less electricity, etc. This article is not about the advantages of digital electronics over analog though.

Basically, at the core, all the electronic gadgets come with provision for taking inputs, process them to take some decisions or provide some outputs, and also for storage. Depending upon how good are they, in such parameters, such electronics can be used for different purposes. While the conventional computers can do almost everything you can think of, and connect different peripherals for different purposes, there are even some electronics, which are not a jack of all trades. But they are master of single tasks or a strictly limited set of tasks. Such systems are called embedded systems. Embedded systems are not at all efficient for doing complex tasks like our computers can, but can do the job, it is designed, without any hassles.


A few characteristics of embedded systems

Just like other electronic systems, all the embedded systems as well as some distinctive characteristics. Let’s have a look at a few of them.

  • Embedded systems in most cases come with limited hardware resources which are good enough to do the tasks assigned to the particular embedded system. Some low-cost general purpose microprocessors are used in such systems.
  • The software used in embedded systems, in most cases are limited only to the embedded systems, and thus, cannot be used in other systems or general systems due to hardware mismatch or similar such issues.
  • The embedded systems come with different user interfaces for different hardware and are quite different from electronic gadgets, which we use for our everyday purposes. Though many embedded systems like ticket vending machines and ATMs have interfaces for mouse and keyboard, they are limited only to the technicians in order to make changes to the system.
  • The embedded systems do not have a lot of storage, and sometimes, most embedded systems do not come with a dedicated permanent storage. A small firmware is used to store the instructions, which is permanently loaded to a small ROM within the system. Though, there are dedicated operating systems, which can be used only on embedded systems. Such systems might require an additional storage unit for the operating system.
  • Embedded systems in most cases take signals from different sensors and give outputs or take some decisions. Such a system or architecture is used mostly in automation industries. That being said, embedded systems can even work with very less or no human intervention.

The architecture of an embedded system

Just like other electronic systems, embedded systems to have a distinct architecture. It is not very different from a normal computer, which we use for general purposes. But things are pretty limited in embedded systems.

Just like computers, embedded systems to have a heart, or the microprocessor, which communicates with the input devices or the sensors to take decisions or produce some appropriate output. Apart from that, the heart or the microprocessor can communicate with the RAM or storage unit for storing some temporary data or permanent information when a function is being executed.

embedded systems
A schematic diagram of an embedded system.


Some embedded systems can even have additional components for bi-directional communication. One such example is the ATM to withdraw money. The computer within the ATM machine can communicate with the cash dispenser to check the denominations available and dispense the same, corresponding to the user’s input.

Real-time operating systems and embedded systems

Most embedded systems run on real-time operating systems, where decisions are taken with minimum buffer delay. For example, a fire extinguishing automation system, where the steps to extinguish the fire should be taken immediately without any delay. Another example of a real-time system is the ATM. Money withdrawn or added to the account should be immediately uploaded to the bank server.

Due to the fast activities and minimum delays in real-time operating systems, such systems are extensively used in embedded systems for maximum productivity and also to get the best possible precision from such systems.

Different operating systems for embedded systems

There are even some operating systems, which are dedicated only to embedded systems. Though not used every time, use of embedded system dedicated operating systems can make things simpler for the users.

Microsoft also its own solution for embedded systems. The Microsoft Windows XPe is the edition of Windows XP for embedded systems. With Windows XPe, the user can keep away certain elements of the operating system from the installation to make it run even on the most resource-limited systems.

Previously the task of mobile phones was limited only to taking and making calls, sending and receiving SMS along with some other small tasks. For it, there is Symbian, which is an embedded operating system used only on mobile phones. Other examples include Palm OS, and the operating systems meant for use in digital cameras.

Thus, embedded systems are those electronic systems, which are built to do some small and limited set of tasks. Even the television, the air conditioner we use, come with a hardware and software, which is efficient enough to accomplish the tasks it is meant to do. That’s what embedded systems are, in a nutshell.

Embedded systems and the internet

Embedded systems can even be controlled, and broadcast the outputs through the internet to and from a different geographical location. IoT based embedded system might seem to be pretty complicated, but it is not so.

Embedded systems with IoT only come with an extra interface to connect to the internet for pulling data from the sensors through the internet and send the signals to drive the output devices through the same media. Though the software in such systems is a little different from that software used in general embedded systems.

Here is the schematic of an IoT enabled the embedded system.


How to make an embedded system

Making an embedded system from the scratch can be pretty difficult. You will have to connect the sensors, the output, properly, and configure the processing unit to deal with the sensors for input and provide the necessary output.

Depending upon the embedded system which you are planning to make, you might need to add even more interfaces, which can further complicate the system. But even the cloud has a silver lining. If you are really planning to build an embedded system, the best way is to use some electronic platforms like Arduino. You can know more about it here.

Hope the information on embedded systems was helpful for you. Have more questions about embedded systems? Feel free to comment your queries down below.

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