Look up from your computer or mobile phone right now. What do you see?
Maybe you see a lamp.
Perhaps a clock? (You’ll have been peeking anyway if lunch or dinner is creeping up on you, after all — or breakfast, if you’re unlucky enough to be working so early in the morning.)
All of these devices contain examples of embedded systems, and they’re all around us.
Chances are you interact with tens if not hundreds of embedded devices every single day of your life. And you didn’t even know it.
It’s so easy to take all of these gadgets for granted. The alarm clock that wakes you up in the morning, the car that gets you to work, the coffee machine that keeps you going throughout the day.
You might not even think about how they all work — they just do.
Here, we peel back the curtain to take a look at the technology behind the scenes — known as embedded software — and the reason these items do the job they’re made to do.
What is embedded software?
Embedded software is any software built into a machine or device that isn’t a traditional computer. Think microwaves, cars, or digital watches, to name a few.
Embedded software development is the creation of software designed for specific hardware specifications or purposes, making it slightly different from the software development you would expect to see in traditional computer programming.
Both engineers and developers need to work within the tight constraints and hardware specifications of the device, which means the software must be highly tailored.
For instance, an embedded software developer will be a lot more concerned with making sure your toaster timer settings are working correctly than making it send emails!
Embedded vs non-embedded software
In a world filled to the brim with technology, it can be difficult to see where embedded software starts and non-embedded software begins.
But by comparing the different software and hardware requirements of a smart refrigerator and a laptop, for instance, the differences become a lot more obvious.
Here are some clear differences between embedded and non-embedded software and software development:
|Designed for specific hardware and/or anything that isn’t a conventional computer
|Designed more generically for computers
|Example: software in IoT devices
|Example: Windows/Mac OS
|Purpose-built for a specific function
|One size fits all: features work on most devices, with generic applications
Components of an embedded system
An “embedded system” refers to the system of software and hardware, i.e., all the components required to make a device work.
Embedded software is essential to a working embedded system, and a vital difference between a working digital watch and a funky (but non-functional) wrist accessory.
Embedded systems carry out specific actions depending on the environment they are in. Sensors are used to take in data from their environment, and the software makes key decisions on what output the hardware should produce from that information.
Think back to our toaster earlier (that’s right, the one that doesn’t send emails). It needs input data from the heating elements to know when it’s come up to temperature; the correct timing associated with its setting; and the spring mechanism to pop the toast out when it’s done (and hopefully not burnt).
And by breaking these tasks down into minute details like this, you can see the real power of embedded systems at work in our day-to-day lives.
Here are each of the components in more detail:
|The “brains” of the operation
|The “nuts and bolts” of a device
|Designed to complete a specific function or functions
|Includes a whole array of parts to allow interaction with the system
Types of embedded systems
There are many different types of embedded systems that are best suited for different purposes. Essentially, which type of system is needed depends on a device’s function.
Let’s take a deeper look at four of the most common types of embedded systems where embedded software development is key.
As the name implies, stand-alone systems don’t require a host system such as a processor, and can work by themselves.
These systems display data on connected devices, communicating data digitally or via analog signals.
They are fairly basic systems that are built for specific uses — including digital alarm clocks or electronic thermometers, or the toaster from our earlier example.
Unlike stand-alone systems, networked systems are connected to other systems and are controlled centrally via either a microprocessor or controller managing programs.
The name “networked systems” comes from the fact that they work on a LAN or WAN network. By doing so, they can create complex systems that manage a variety of services.
Examples of networked systems include modern security systems, camera tools like Ring and Nest, and smart home features.
The most obvious example of a mobile system is a smartphone, which uses specific versions of software (such as Android or iOS).
Even so, mobile systems can be simpler than that. A mobile system refers to any time that you have a portable system built on multiple embedded applications that require microcontrollers and complex communication while remaining portable.
In short, any non-laptop personal mobile computing device can be considered a mobile system.
Real-time embedded systems
Real-time embedded systems require in-the-moment, immediate responses, so engineers build these systems based on this principle.
This type of system must complete urgent tasks within very specific time limits, where failure can be catastrophic. As a result, real-time embedded systems are often the most important when it comes to safety or emergency situations.
Anything from medical tools and vehicles to military defense systems falls under this category of embedded systems.
Examples of embedded systems
Plenty of examples of embedded systems can be found in all shapes and sizes, from toasters to Teslas.
Here are some more common examples of embedded systems:
- Cars – it doesn’t have to be a Tesla to contain embedded technology. From parking sensors to automatic windscreen wipers, modern cars are jam-packed with embedded systems and devices to make driving more comfortable and convenient.
- Smart TVs – ever have the embarrassing problem of the TV auto powering off because you’ve been watching it too long? Embedded software. Ever used the voice function on your remote to change the channel when clicking through buttons won’t cut the mustard? Embedded software. Compared to the days of the cathode ray, the silver screen has never been more slick, thanks to embedded systems.
- Security cameras – motion detection systems play an important role in home security, and thanks to hardware in the form of standard and infrared cameras, you can achieve a variety of desired outputs from footage recording to automatic lights to keep the bad guys at bay.
- Traffic lights – whether it’s on your daily commute or a weekend outing, it’s almost impossible to avoid traffic lights. Traffic control uses embedded systems, with input data from the environment and current traffic conditions, to keep cars flowing and your journey going.
Best languages for embedded software programming
But embedded systems don’t work by magic. They require specialist programming by embedded software developers to ensure that the software functions correctly and has the desired outcome.
To do this, developers use programming languages that allows them to write code that the software understands.
You’ll find some of the most commonly used programming languages below:
C and Embedded C are incredibly popular languages. Because they work so close to the assembly level, it means they both provide much better communication and memory management.
They’re also able to work on a variety of systems. For instance, Embedded C is purpose-built for embedded development, hence the name, making it ideal for programming microcontrollers and wider tools.
Another C variant, the C++ programming language is very popular for the same reasons as C. It’s highly regarded for its stability and code security, but it brings some challenges when it comes to memory management.
Python is becoming much more popular as a programming language for embedded systems due to its ease of use. It also doesn’t require long compilations of data, so it speeds up the development process.
This widely popular programming language is considered best for designing user interfaces (UIs) and is often recommended due to its dependability and portability.
This language is another C derivative. However, the difference with Rust is that it adds a lot of safety features, much faster programming capabilities, and dynamic memory management to reduce the manual work in the long run.
Lua is an incredibly lightweight language, popular in embedded system engineering because of its minimal memory usage. Many developers also regard it as easier to learn than C and its derivatives.
Best tools for embedded software engineers
With so many programming languages and embedded systems out there, it would be incredibly difficult to narrow down one all-encompassing tool.
Below, we’ve included some of the most efficient tools for embedded software engineers and developers currently available on the market. You might even spot a familiar name…
Proteus is a software-based testing system for printed circuit boards (PCBs), letting teams quickly design PBC routes, pathways, and layouts.
Of course, it would be rude not to include ourselves!
At Incredibuild, our technology accelerates embedded software development and reduces waiting time to allow for real-time iteration and faster time-to-market.
Microsoft’s Visual Studio is one of the most popular integrated development environments (IDEs) in the world — and for good reason.
Compatible with an enormous list of programming languages, it offers integrated debugging for C and C++ on both Windows and Linux operating systems that use Visual C++ for IoT.
ARM Keil is a full development environment for embedded software on ARM microcontroller devices, including its full suite of tools and libraries.