IoT and Embedded Systems

All about connecting your objects to the internet
March 28, 2023

‍Embedded systems make up a huge part of today’s technological advancements, you can find them in everyday items such as your TV remote, oven, microwave and pretty much all your household electronics.

In parallel, the Internet of Things or IoT, has revolutionized many of these items to connect them all together to form a web of interconnected devices.

Let’s dive into the principles that make these devices “smart”.

What are embedded systems?

In the past, you’d buy an oven thinking it was just a plain oven, that its features wouldn’t change over the years. That particular device, which was mostly mechanical, wasn't and couldn’t change or improve in its lifetime.

Embedded systems are the inside electronics that help the oven achieve its goals, it could simply be a system to set a timer on your oven or select a temperature. The term describes the internal architecture of the system, which “system” is inside, what programming language is used and what electronic components are inside? They tend to be small software programs that serve a particular function of your device, these are fixed and never change once the customer buys the product.

The idea behind the Internet of Things is as follows, why not provide software updates for your electronics, why not enable regular updates to your electronics so as to continually improve overall quality and features.

The difference between these two is that the IoT has access to the internet, devices in the IoT can dialog with the web, this does enable software updates and development but at a certain cost.

Having a connected device means the customer pays an extra price for that service, he expects to have software updates, a functioning device, and online security.

For builders, it means you can’t push buggy software, it has to be thoroughly tested. It also means you have to consider a dedicated team that oversees the development of this device’s software updates.

Cybersecurity is also a very important concern, connecting your fridge or house lock to the internet means it's hackable and you could well find yourself locked out of your home one day, having to pay a ransom because some hacker took hold of your lock.

Embedded Systems, without improving over time, offer better security over IoT devices in that sense. Onboard systems are often “locked” behind a variety of screws and circuit boards. While not impenetrable, most users won’t try and examine the insides of their devices.

IoT devices therefore require regular security updates and force companies to track and provide software to their users, not as a feature but a necessity. Requiring more funds and a larger workforce.

Why should you look at embedded systems and IoT?

Choosing whether or not you should allow your device to the internet comes down to a variety of questions. What do you want your product to achieve? Who’s the market audience? What should it cost?

The ultimate goal of the IoT is to have a network of connected devices, working together to serve the user. Imagine yourself coming home from work. The GPS on your phone detects your arrival, it sends a message to the electronics in your house, the lights turn on, music starts playing in the background, your heater turns on automatically if it's cold.  You pick up your phone to start a call, the music playing in your living room stops, your phone connects to your home speakers etc. This vision relies on an entire ecosystem of devices, all seemingly connected together, in the background.

Notice in these examples that your smartphone is the initiator, the IoT heavily relies on sensors to get input and decide on an appropriate action. Where does it get its information from, something that you carry with you everywhere: your smartphone.

Connecting an environment creates a web of communication that changes the way we interact with the online world. Human beings aren’t the source of the demand anymore, devices and machines are. They have to match the human subconscious demand corresponding to the environment.

In today’s context other perspectives come into play, enabling software in our everyday homes requires immense quantities of circuit boards and sensors. Devices which all consume power, sometimes high amounts of it. These circuit boards have to be improved and work in low power modes if we wanna see global adoption.

This creates a few hurdles on our way to a fully connected IoT:

  • High power dissipation in circuit boards
  • Increase in costs and creation of the product
  • Security crisis
  • Making sure companies provide updates throughout the years
  • Making sure customers follow along with your updates

How do embedded systems work?

Diving into the internals, let’s take a look at what an embedded device is. Keep in mind, IoT devices are embedded devices, they just have an added component such as a wifi antenna that enables cloud communication.

An embedded system hardware has 5 different components:  the memory, processor, bus controllers, input and output devices.

  • Memory: It’s the area used to store the information and data of your program. Different memory types exist such as RAM (Random Access Memory), ROM( Read Only Memory)
  • Input devices: They capture data to feed into the processor and the software. This includes switches, knobs, sensors…
  • Output devices: These respond to software demands to give the result of your computation to the user. It could be anything from a display, to a speaker, to a buzzer…
  • Bus controllers: This part transfers data between the components, it's a communication device.  Here are a few common ones: Universal Serial Bus or USB, SMBus,I2C…
  • Processors: This unit is where the magic happens, where calculations are made, it’s the brains of your device. Processors include the following: Microcontrollers or CPU, System on Chip or Soc, ASIC or Application Specific Integrated Circuit and DSP or Digital System Processor.

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