by July 1, 2005 0 comments



Embedded computers have grown to find a place in almost every industry, in almost every sphere of your life. Whether you realize it or not, embedded systems are present all around you. 

Consumer electronics and automobiles are spheres where the average user is directly in touch with the embedded systems even though he may not be as aware of their presence as, say, while using a smart phone. A car manufacturer is talking about embedded systems when he encourages you to buy it’s offering because it features a 32-bit processor while the competitors are using only 16-bit ones. But what does this processor do, in addition to helping the companies make a better sales pitch? Apart from ensuring that everything is running smoothly, a microprocessor is typically used to control things such as fuel injection and provide features such as traction control in the high-end cars.

Today we dream of an ‘Internet enabled’ house where all consumer electronics goods are connected to the Internet. This has been made possible, thanks to the marvels of modern day embedded technology. It is this technology that has made it possible to implement connectivity and processing options in household goods such as air conditioners.

 

The aviation industry has been amongst the first to adopt embedded systems, because aircraft requires real-time monitoring of various critical parameters when flying

Like mentioned before, one of the most visible roles of embedded systems is in the telecom sector. The smartness in your smart phone is thanks to an embedded chip and the software that runs over it, which would put some of the older desktops to shame. It is this microprocessor that facilitates availability of various phone options such as Bluetooth, messaging, browsing, etc. 

Telecom and data networks use equipment that run some of the fastest and busiest processors. Tiny routers capable of taking decisions within fractions of a second about the destination of each data packet are also fine examples of how much power can be packed into a small package.

Doctors and hospitals around the world use some of the most complex embedded systems implementations. X-ray machines, CAT scan machines and equipment capable of analyzing blood samples and the likes are no mean feats made possible thanks only to the wonders of modern embedded computing.

Embedded computers have made the life and times of those in manufacturing easy as well. With embedded systems, it is possible to automate some or all parts (depending upon the industry and the product) of the manufacturing process. This automation can also help a great deal in implementing stringent quality control methods. This not only saves cost, but also time. Moreover, industrial control is another industry thriving on embedded systems. Whether it’s sensing the temperature levels in a fertilizer plant or the rpm of a turbine engine in real time, embedded systems are there to rescue.

Amongst the earliest, most complex and definitely the most critical embedded systems are the ones used by the aviation industry. The aviation industry was one of the earliest adaptors of embedded technologies, driven by its need to pack a lot of power into a small package without compromising on reliability. The typical systems used in a air-plane needs to be capable of taking real-time decisions and (ideally) never fail or at least have adequate protection against failure.

The equipment kept in the radiology labs is another application of embedded systems

Inter-communication between all of these systems or rather with a central system responsible for consolidating, interpreting and reporting this information is a must.

The auto-pilot, which uses information from these systems to make its decisions, is, arguably the finest example of a world-class embedded system.

Some of the embedded systems used by the military are quite similar to ones used in the aviation industry. For example, some of the components used in a commercial jet can be used as is in a fighter jet. Add to that the offensive and defense mechanisms of the aircraft that make the systems talk to each other and you have your very own Sukhoi just like that! Needless to say, this isn’t a simple task. Consider, for example, the need to calculate the relative position of the target in real time even as the jet goes flying at supersonic speeds and locking the weapon on it-by no means a trivial task for any system now. Submarines and even the new generation tanks employ similar systems, obviously, customized to their specific needs. ¨

Power consumption




An embedded system does not have the luxury of space or power that a desktop system does. While a desktop is designed to give the best performance for a given cost and the power consumption is hardly considered, an embedded system typically has the design goal of providing maximum performance given the power constraints. Not to mention, embedded system designers have an infinite budget to achieve that goal, of course.

So how are these design goals achieved? One of the techniques used to achieve better power efficiency is DPM (Dynamic Power Management). DPM involves selective shut-off or slow-down of components that are not in use. For example, a MP3 player may shut off the hard disk after reading the entire song into memory, thereby saving the power that would have been spent in keeping the disk running for the entire duration of the song. Some of the modern day processors implement DPM by using dynamic voltage and frequency scaling. This means that these processors can scale down their clock speeds and, thus, the power consumed by them during idle time or time of lesser workload. The Intel Xscale, which powers Dell’s Axim series, and Transmeta’s Crusoe are two such processors. Some of the more advanced techniques used to reduce power consumption include low power bus encoding and power-aware software compilation. While the former aims to reduce consumption by reducing the number of transitions in transmitting data across the system bus, the latter does the same by generating power efficient machine code.

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