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Embedded Systems | What Are Embedded Systems?

What is an embedded system?

Embedded PC systems are small computerised parts (or systems) that have been embedded into larger, computer devices, for example:

Embedded systems are designed with a purpose that is unique to their user/s. Therefore, they are able to perform specific functions, within a range of harsh environments, such as marine, vehicle and rail. In essence, embedded systems process information and control, monitor or assist the operation of both equipment and machinery.


How do embedded systems work?

An embedded system works by incorporating a rugged computer board into an industrial enclosure with associated I/O (Input and Output) to fulfil a function in an embedded environment.

The computing element is an embedded motherboard, which is the feature packed small form factor, heart of an embedded system.

Specialist I/O such as video capture, communication ports, digital and analogue signals are connected into the computing heart for the system to work.

An embedded operating system runs on the embedded system allowing application software to utilise the features to provide the required functionality in the embedded environment.


PC system requirements

The computing heart of an embedded system is an industrial grade PC motherboard with the relevant performance and I/O requirements.

The PC motherboard will be an embedded form factor such as 3.5”, Pico-ITX, Nano-ITX  or UTX.

LP-173 Baytrail - Pico-ITX Motherboard LN-D70 Baytrail - Nano-ITX Motherboard UTX-110/UTX-111 Baytrail - UTX Embedded
Pico-ITX Motherboard

Nano-ITX Motherboard

UTX Embedded Board


These boards are compact but still offer good performance with technology such as Bay Trail or Broadwell.

Industrial grade components will also be selected for the PC board such as DRAM and storage which may also need wide temperature range operation. Most systems now use Solid State Drives (SSD) such as mSATA direct plug-on or 2.5” form factor.


Embedded system design

Embedded systems are designed for use in a different environment to that of usual office computer equipment. They have to be able to cope with much more demanding conditions such as wide temperature ranges, difficult power supply conditions and shock and vibration situations.

The designer takes into account the intended area of use of the system and specifies a suitable enclosure which may be steel or extruded aluminium for example. Heat dissipation needs to be addressed and often requires the use of conducted cooling or heat pipe arrangements as cooling fans cannot always be used.

The finished item is unlikely to resemble any desktop or laptop PC but is more likely a rugged “black box”.


Embedded Computer Examples:

  • Police Car mounted ANPR & DVR
  • Level crossing DVR analysis safety
  • Mobile phone forensic analysis
  • Taxi mounted rooftop display control
  • Crane mounted communication and video safety


Location aware mobile advertising   BVM helps with the heavy lifting 


Programming an embedded system

Embedded systems cover a wide variety of environments and the approach to programming them will depend on where they will be used.

If an embedded system needs real time response, then the starting point may be a Real Time Operating System (RTOS). Above the RTOS, the programmer will write applications in C++ for example. For hard real time response, there may be no RTOS at all but the system will be programmed directly using ADA for example.

The disadvantage with the above approach is the lack of driver software support and for many applications where real time response is not required, Microsoft Windows Embedded  can be used. The advantage is the wealth of driver support that is available and the programmer can concentrate on writing their specific application, again usually in C++.

Another option is using Linux, which has a certain level of driver support available. However, it should be understood that although Linux is inherently royalty free, this does not mean that the development cycle will be free and care must be taken over any licensable software, in the Linux package.


Advantages of embedded systems

For long-term use, embedded systems are better than standalone, general purpose computers. Embedded systems offer many benefits, such as:

  • They are task specific
  • They cover a wide variety of environments and can cope with demanding conditions.
  • They are less likely to encore errors
  • Their system hardware is simplified, which reduces costs overall.
  • They have a fanless design
  • The use of less power than desktop systems ensures there is no need for cooling.


Check out our latest selection of Embedded Systems and Industrial PC Systems below to see how they can enhance your project...

iBox 210 - Fanless Slimline MicroPC Intel Baytrail BayTrail - Rich I/O Fanless Barebone System
iBox 210 - Fanless Slimline MicroPC Intel Baytrail Bay Trail - Rich I/O Fanless Barebone System


SBOX-100-QM87 - Marine Embedded PC System


Marine Embedded PC System Vehicle Fleet Management Embedded PC System


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