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IEEE-USA Today's Engineer

I read a few years ago that the average individual in an industrialized nation came into contact with over 48 embedded systems every day. With all of the cellular phones, portable media player/MP3 devices, global positioning system (GPS) units, set-top boxes, digital video recorders, automobile telematics systems and digital televisions that were introduced over the past couple of years, I suspect that this number is probably on the low side today. We are surrounded by embedded systems comprised of custom hardware and software designs.

So, just what is an embedded system? Who develops them? What is special about embedded systems and the people who build them? And, more importantly, why is it growing harder to find these people to hire them? I’ll try to answer these questions and more within this piece.

An embedded system can be characterized as any device in which you inherently know there must be a computer in there someplace, but you’re just not sure where. This is not to be confused with real-time systems. Systems that have real-time deadlines may or may not be embedded, and not all embedded systems have real-time deadlines. There is considerable overlap for sure, but they are not one and the same.

For instance, a GPS locator has a computer inside. I suspect that everyone knows that. But, we typically don’t attach a keyboard and mouse to it although it’s probably one of the most computer-like of the embedded systems since the user must input addresses in some way. Nor does the user typically vaporize if the device takes 30 seconds to acquire a satellite fix rather than 15 seconds. The GPS is an embedded device, but we probably wouldn’t classify it as a real-time device.

On the other hand, anti-lock brakes are computer controlled as well. Our input into the anti-lock brakes of the car is limited to the brake pedal. The rest of the operation is completely based on other sensors and the environment.

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