Ever since the launch of the Pulsar digital watch in 1972, the world of embedded systems has progressed exceptionally rapidly, to the point where this type of electronics is now all around us and continuing to spread. It’s an exciting area to be involved in: over the coming months, platforms will continue to evolve, making it easier and cheaper for designers to deliver products to consumers.
[The Pulsar Digital Watch]
Embedded platforms are, of course, driven in part by wider market trends that demand new hardware. If you look at the adoption graphs for many of the new product categories that have emerged in the last few years, you’ll typically see an early spike, followed by a drop-off when the first generation of products didn’t live up to its (often over-hyped) expectations. But as newer, more refined products come to market and costs drop, there’s typically a long and steady period of more widespread adoption.
With this in mind, let’s look at what’s driving the embedded systems market, how things are likely to evolve over the coming months and how various product manufacturers are responding. The popularity of smart devices that we control over the Internet is on the rise, with home heating and lighting being two key areas. The number of connected devices in use in 2016 was 17 billion; some foresee it breaking the 20 billion mark this year.
The big players are upping the ante when it comes to voice-activated digital assistants and associated products, such as smart speakers. Others, from car makers to consumer electronics manufacturers, are rushing to deliver products that integrate with these virtual assistants. This compatibility could become a key decision-making point for consumers when buying electronics to form part of their growing connected ecosystems.
After a slow start in terms of consumer take-up, we expect adoption of artificial-intelligence-powered interaction to gather pace, as people become more used to working with their electronic assistants and understand better how to unleash their full potential.
Manufacturers of embedded platforms are responding to these demands, with new hardware that makes it easy for designers to integrate two-way conversation into their products. One example is the Arduino Star-Otto. Alongside its STM32F469 processor, the board includes Wi-Fi and a stereo mic, great for voice control. Are we about to see an open-source digital assistant?
A shift in focus from wearable to drivable
While forecasts suggest the wearable market will grow at an annualized rate of 18% for the next three years, other indicators suggest things aren’t so rosy. The electronic giant, Best Buy, just this year reported a decline in sales hurt by weak demand for wearable devices. A feasible explanation is that the wearable market will stagnate until we see an improvement in battery life, or until a sufficient number of compelling features can be compressed into wearable form.
Conversely, public interest and engineering efforts in the smart and autonomous vehicle space are booming. Market forces aren’t the only things driving the need for automotive-specific embedded hardware. Regulatory and legislative changes will also be a factor. The United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), for example, proposed that all vehicles should include vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology as soon as 2023. If this goes through, manufacturers will have to start phasing in the technology within the next few years, which will drive up demand for related technologies.
[Self-driving cars are on the horizon.]
Embedded hardware manufacturers are responding to these needs. Intel’s Atom E3900 processors, for example, are built with the IoT in mind and there’s a version specifically for automotive use, the A3900. According to Intel, this will enable auto makers to transform in-vehicle experiences by creating completely software-defined cockpits, covering everything from advanced driver assistance systems to entertainment kit.
Drones, AR, and VR
Augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and prosumer-grade drones all have embedded electronics at their heart. Both AR/VR and drones are growing in popularity, with the latter helped by U.S. regulatory changes.
The rise of Google’s Android Things OS
Google’s embedded offerings have evolved into what’s now called the Android Things operating system, with a number of products based on it launching during 2017. Among the hardware platforms that Android Things will run on are Raspberry Pi 3 and the NXP Pico.
We’ve known about the powerful BeagleBoard X15 single-board computer (SBC) since 2014, and by the end of the year, developers will actually be able to get their hands on one. It opens up some exciting possibilities.
Created for heavy-duty use, the X15 packs in more processing power than most industrial SBCs and still comes in at under $300. It also boasts an impressive list of ports and interfaces, including USB 3.0, USB 2.0, Micro USB, eSATA, Gigabit Ethernet, HDMI and audio. Moreover, there are four 60-pin dual-row headers to serve as expansion ports, 157 GPIO pins, an SPI bus, I2C, CAN, and seven UARTs. Early prototypes have been used to create home-made media centers, custom 3D printers, robotics and security testing devices.
[BeagleBone Black Wireless]
Processing power isn’t the be-all and end-all, of course. Many IoT applications demand more lightweight solutions with wireless connectivity, as found in the BeagleBone Black Wireless. With the Ethernet port replaced by Wi-Fi b/g/n and Bluetooth Low Energy, the wireless version is aimed at IoT applications.
Asus launches its Tinker Board
While slightly pricier than a Raspberry Pi 3, the Asus Tinker Board delivers improved performance, underpinned by an ARM-based SoC. This includes an Cortex-A17 processor, Mali-T764 GPU (which claims to be capable of 4K video), 2 Gbytes of LPDDR memory, wired and wireless connectivity, a microSD slot, and a 40-pin breakout header exposing the GPIO pins.
Arduino is trying to shake off the perception held by many designers that the platform is little more than an educational or artistic tool. The Arduino Industrial 101—an eval board for the Arduino 101 LGA module—is a key part of the drive to establish Arduino as a professional-grade embedded platform. This product could coax professional users to replace programmable logic controllers in industrial applications.
It’ll be complemented by other components aimed at the IoT and machine-to-machine (M2M) markets. This includes a shield that will enable the Arduino platform to link up to Long-Range Radio Wide Area Networks (LoRaWAN, or LoRa). This Industrial IoT connectivity board enables the battery-powered kit to link to a communications gateway that’s several kilometers away, a significant improvement over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, where range is measured in meters. The energy efficiency and range that LoRa and other low-power networks (LPNs) offer means that they’re likely to play an increasing role in delivering next-generation IoT and M2M kits.
Consequences of recent mergers
While we can predict a lot of what’s likely to happen over the coming months, one area that’s a somewhat uncertain is the fallout from all the recent acquisitions. ARM, Atmel, Fairchild, and Linear Tech were all acquired. What this means for their existing products and development roadmaps remains to be seen: newly acquired intellectual property will probably be supported in the short term, but after that, we could see some embedded platforms phased out as vendors streamline their portfolios. For product developers, this could raise big engineering challenges, requiring them to alter their designs to use different components.
Despite this potential challenge, it’s a good time to be a design engineer. Demand for products with embedded electronics is already high and will continue to increase, driven by markets and regulation/legislation.