Think of the computing systems you have seen in the supermarket or grocery store. There's a huge chance they are embedded computer systems. So what is an embedded computers, and how does it differ from conventional industrial computers? Can it work in extreme environments and still deliver on its performance requirements? If you have such queries, we've prepared this article for you.
What is an Embedded Computer?
IoT Components are parts of an Embedded Computer
It is a small computer purpose-built for performing a particular function. Thus, it is a single system that is a part of a more extensive system. Examples include Microcontrollers (MCU) and Single-board computers (SBC). Also, it contains all the details synonymous with consumer-grade desktop computers, such as CPU, GPU, and RAM.
So is it similar to embedded systems? While the two are related, they don't refer to the same thing. A series of embedded computers and other electronic devices such as sensors, interfaces, and software make up embedded systems.
Hence, embedded computers are the core functional unit of an embedded system. Also, each performs a specific function unique from the other.
Embedded Computer Parts
It's the essential hardware component of the computer. Typically, it can be a Central Processing Unit (CPU)/Microprocessing Unit (MPU) or a Microcontroller Unit (MCU). The CPU does the computational tasks of a conventional computer. Nonetheless, it will require I/O components and additional storage space for effective operation.
Also, all components are encompassed in one chip in some embedded computers. This single chip is the MCU. They are relatively cheaper than other embedded computers due to their relatively lower performance. However, their relatively lower power capacity doesn't hamper functionality.
A computer hard drive
It is the non-volatile memory where the computer stores programming data, configuration data, and encryption information. The memory can either be an internal component or external. Examples of storage devices include hard drives, solid-state drives, SD cards, and EMMC chips.
RAM/ System Memory
A Computer RAM
Unlike the nonvolatile memory we've covered above, RAM uses volatile memory. Hence, every time you switch off the computer, it'll erase all the data inside it. Also, the higher the RAM, the faster the performance.
Additionally, RAM is a common storage system since it's faster than SD cards.
Almost all embedded computers will have these ports. They are essential in connecting to legacy technology, sensors, and other devices. Among the common I/O ports include:
- Ethernet Ports
- USB Type-A Ports
- Serial COM ports
- Audio Ports (In/Out)
- General-purpose input/output (GPIO) Ports
- DVI Ports
- HDMI Ports
A 3D GPU illustration
They are the additional components essential in boosting the performance of workloads. Performance accelerators include:
- Graphics Processing Unit (GPU)
- Field Programmable Gate Arrays/FPGAs,
- Vision Processing Units/VPUs.
Like other computing systems, embedded computers also require some cooling. It is essential in preventing thermal throttling because of extreme temperatures. Thus, most have heat sinks for cooling. Also, the cooling boosts the power efficiency of the computer.
Embedded Computer vs. Desktop Computer
Embedded computers are different from conventional computers.
The fundamental difference between the two is in purpose and design. For instance, the parts are on a single printed circuit board (PCB) or motherboard in embedded computers. Also, the manufacturers have already soldered the components on the PCB. Thus, you cannot upgrade or expand the embedded computer.
Additionally, an embedded computer is relatively smaller than a conventional PC. Lastly, embedded computers are low-powered as compared to other industrial computers. On the flip side, a regular PC features a traditional motherboard, but the manufacturer doesn't solder the parts. Thus, it is possible to replace the components.
Nonetheless, both feature the same components as, essentially, they are all computers.
Why Use Embedded Computers for Embedded Systems Applications?
Factory control room with computers
You're probably wondering why not use regular PCs in embedded computer systems instead of embedded computers. There are loads of upsides that make them preferable for the assembly production and defense industry. They include the following:
Robustness and high reliability
A computer that can operate around the clock is handy in industrial settings. Embedded computers meet this condition. Also, they can remain reliable for extensive periods even while working in harsh conditions. These include working even under challenging environmental conditions such as extreme weather.
Additionally, most embedded computers can withstand high-pressure water, dust, and extreme temperatures. Also, they can perform optionally on a wide operating temperature range (-30°C to 70°C).
Working round the clock in industrial settings requires an energy-efficient computer. Therefore, most in-vehicle embedded computers are energy efficient. They consume relatively low power and have lightweight dedicated software. These factors are critical to low power consumption.
Thus, as compared to a general-purpose computer, an embedded computer is more energy efficient.
Versatility due to small size
Motherboard mini it with pc
Most feature small form factor motherboards like Mini-ITX. Also, most have unique, innovative enclosure designs and built-in cooling features to facilitate taking small space. Hence, they are versatile and portable for outdoor space-limited environments and remote environments.
Often, organizations require to connect to a wide range of technologies- both old and new. Hence, having a variety of I/O ports is significant, especially for industrial automation processes. For instance, you may want to connect to additional components such as a programmable logic controller.
In most general-purpose computer systems, there won't be an available port for new technologies. However, embedded computers have a rich I/O to facilitate such applications.
Types of Embedded Computer
Machine learning data analysis concept.
It's an integrated circuit device capable of controlling other parts of an electronic system. Its key components include memory, MCU, and other peripherals. Also, the MCU is the sole chip in the entire system in microcontrollers.
Besides, they have the smallest form factor size compared to other embedded computing devices. They are useful in real-time data collection as they are highly reliable and durable. Also, they feature a TinyML. Thus, they can do machine learning tasks. Examples include the Seeeduino Lotus.
All the components of this computer are on a single circuit board. Also, you can link this device to other storage devices easily as it has numerous ports. Besides, these automation PCs feature a System-on-Chip (SoC). Thus, all the computer components/electronic systems are on one chip.
Among their key upsides includes their low cost and wide range of use. Odyssey X86 is a single board computer.
They enable the functioning of IoT sensors in data transmission from the field to the cloud. Thus, they are useful in advanced cloud-based surveillance systems. Primarily, they facilitate wireless communication and are robustly made to withstand harsh conditions. An example is the SenseCAP Gateway.
It features a keyboard, a built-in display screen, and an all-in-one touchscreen, among other components. Also, the computer facilitates effective human contact primarily through its robust screens.
The terminal is one of the popular industrial panel PCs.
Rugged Industrial PC
It is an industry-standard embedded computer. Also, it has complex and robust engineering to withstand harsh environmental conditions. An example is the SenseCAP Gateway we earlier mentioned.
Examples of Embedded Computer Systems
Almost all present-day smart devices have embedded systems. Among the real-life examples of such systems include:
Central Heating Systems
Thermostats are examples of embedded computer systems
They are essential in heating homes and offices. The essential part of these systems is the thermostat which provides temperature controls.
It is a navigation system that specifically synchronizes time, location, and speed data. Thus, the data recipient features an integrated embedded system whose primary purpose is to decipher GPS information. You'll find GPS systems in mobile phones and cars, among many others.
A woman with a fitness tracker
They apply embedded systems to track heartbeat rate, distance, and body temperature information.
Other Embedded computer systems include the following:
- Automotive systems
- Washing machines
- Most electronic medical devices, such as medical imaging
- Factory robots and interactive kiosk machines
- Automated Teller Machines (ATMs)
- Transit and fare collection systems
In a nutshell, embedded computers are handy electronic devices for fulfilling specific functions. Also, embedded computers are better than conventional computers in terms of efficiency. Lastly, embedded computers are critical parts of common embedded systems like ATMs. Now you have all the essential information on embedded systems. If you have queries, reach out to us.