With growth and advancements in the field of electronics, wireless communications, networking, cognitive and affective computing and robotics, devices around you communicate in more ways than you ever imagined. Those times are not very distant when every object around us will have a small processor/sensor embedded within itself, invisible to us but still communicating with all other devices around, making our lives more connected and accessible than ever before.
The future of embedded systems lies in the advancement of technologies that enable faster communications, heavy data storage capacities and highly interwoven connections among the devices. Before diving into the enormous number of applications of embedded systems, let’s discuss the seven buzzwords that will define the future of embedded systems.
Intel's Kaby Lake-Refresh U-series models landed last year with the surprising addition of twice as many cores within the same power envelope. Intel also announced that it would include three different process nodes within the same eighth generation of processors, a first, which included the Kaby Lake-R, Coffee Lake, and Canon Lake processors.
Ubiquitous Computing is a branch of computing that focuses on interconnected and communicating devices carefully integrated into the objects we interact with in our daily lives. These objects can be anything right from your clothes to your toasters and coffee mugs. Smartphones and tablets are currently the obvious targets for applications aiming at ubiquitous computing, but in the future, don’t be surprised if your game console talks to your smartphone’s calendar about how “busy” you are today. The term Ubiquitous Computing (Ubicomp), also known as Pervasive Computing, was coined around 1988 by Mark Weiser when he was heading the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC).
Sentient Computing is another form of ubiquitous computing which involves using various kinds of sensors to sense the environment and react accordingly. All over the world, research institutions and universities are working on Ubicomp’s possibilities, bringing us more and more applications of everyday devices communicating with each other. With advancement in cloud computing, applications of ubiquitous computing got a real boost. Apple’s iCloud is a very basic implementation of ubiquitous computing which integrates all your Apple devices seamlessly and maintains unified data among all those devices.
Intelligent devices are devices that have the ability to think, or simply put are “things that think”. These devices use a combination of technology, algorithms and embedded hardware to replicate what was once thought to be an activity exclusive to living beings with brains. Today, there are machines that can do your thinking for you. MIT Media Lab is working on this “Things that think” idea and aims at creating environments that enable this way of thinking. Whether it’s a simple device such as iLumi (an intelligent light bulb that can be operated via an Android app to create different lighting environments) or a device as complex as PETMAN (an anthropomorphic robot that can detect any chemical leaks in its costume – useful for testing chemical protection clothing), intelligent devices will soon be everywhere. This ultra-high level of intelligence in machines poses concerns of security and privacy.
The Internet of Things is a technology revolution that began just a few years ago. It’s gradually sneaking into our lives and will soon be a reality. Introduced by Kevin Ashton from Procter & Gamble in 1989, Internet of Things or IoT is a concept that involves connecting the internet to physical devices such as home appliances and manufacturing machines. With cloud computing and increasing access to fastspeed internet everywhere around the world, the Internet of Things will soon be more than just a concept. IOT is no more a discussion with platforms such as Cosm that allow data and devices to be connected in all new ways and OSes such as Contiki that are dedicated to developing apps that realise the concept.
Your smartphone communicates with your chair about your sitting posture, with satellite receivers to know the right temperature and your cooking gas to know whether the dish you left to simmer on it is burning; in case of a fire hazard, it will communicate with the respective fire control agency in your zone. Businesses have realised the importance of IoT and there are consultancy firms already that specialise in helping you apply IoT at your organisation.
Cyber physical systems form an important part of Internet of Things. These systems are backed by powerful computation and fast communication and aim at integrating the physical and cyber world into one. Cyber physical systems can be used for precision-based tasks such as in the implementation of robotic arms, exploration-based tasks in areas inaccessible to humans, creating and deploying energy efficient systems as well as for easing daily life activities.
Organic Computing adds an extra layer to context awareness and aims at developing intelligent systems that have self-X properties and systems that react to both, changes in itself (endogenous) and changes in the outside world (exogenous). Self-X properties of such systems include self-optimisation, self-protection, self-healing, self-support, self-configuration etc. Such devices behave independent of manual intervention as they can and use machine learning algorithms to strengthen their properties. Examples include fault tolerant robots and vehicles that are sent to difficult terrains and outer space.
These devices are engineered to react to new situations and reconfigure themselves accordingly. Boston Dynamics created a four-legged robot called Big Dog, which can take decisions while navigating terrains. Also, there’s a robot called Chembot which has shape shifting features which allow it inflate and deflate according to terrains it is navigating. Organic computing is alleged with ethical and security concerns stating that fact that such levels of self-X properties can lead to destructive intelligence.
With advancements in technology trends discussed in the previous sections, future of embedded systems will come with a lot of cool stuff in it’s bag. We discuss the applications of future embedded systems in different verticals below:
Agriculture is one of the primary fields that requires assistance of something awesome like Embedded systems. There are a lot of complexities involved in the process – a farmer has to understand the climatic conditions, sometimes predict the conditions and change the farming practices accordingly. The farming practices also change according the soil conditions of that specific plot and hence some computational assistance can help a lot.
With this in mind, scientists have come up with what they call as Precision Farming/Precision Agriculture which basically optimises the whole farm management by maximising the output while keeping the input minimum. Precision Farming is presently being implemented in Kerala by Kerala Agricultural University (KAU) and International Centre for Free and Open Source Software (ICFOSS), where they are trying to setup a technology-assisted system named “Smart Agriculture” which would provide real-time data about the soil with the help of sensors to a cloud-based platform.
This cloud platform would also take information from satellites and suggest farming practices accordingly after proper data interpretation. The system also aims at giving the farmers – market information, post-harvest advices and value addition options. This system in the far future also aims at removing the labour issues by setting up robotic farm equipments like sensor-based sprinklers that would do the farming practices that a labour generally does.
In many major countries also, Precision farming has gained a lot of traction. In Holland, presently Driverless tractors are being developed using Real Time Kinematic and GPS. It is proven to be quite effective and cost efficient for large farmlands Researchers at MIT have setup a Distributed Robot Garden, which is a garden consisting of Tomato plants that are nurtured by Robots.
The robots here water the plants, provide nutrients regularly studying the plants condition and harvest the tomatoes optimally. Each plant is equipped with sensors that update the robots about the plant’s status; the whole garden has sensors that give the map and respective positions of the plants to the robots and these robots move around and act according to the plant’s condition. Robots right now are able to predict the state of the fruit, as in, when it would ripe and be ready for harvest and when the plant would require the next round of nutrients. Presently, the garden is open for students to conduct research and make this system better and make it commercially usable by Farmers.
Embedded systems can be also used to manage cattle in a better way. For ages now, managing cattle has been done with the help of fences that bind the cattle in a fixed area. However, this is very restrictive and these are physical fences and generally require a lot of money to be put up. Dr. Anderson (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture) came up with an idea of having virtual fences, instead of actually setting up real ones. This can be possible by using the Directional Virtual Fencing System, which works by equipping the cattle with a pair of GPS enabled headphones that gives the exact location of the cow to a central location.
The system also gives information about the landscape pattern, as to where the grass is green and where not. So, the person monitoring the cow can give leverage to the distance the cow travels making the boundary more flexible and virtual. But, if the cow is going completely out of range, it’ss direction can be corrected – first by emitting a gentle noise, and then followed with a louder noise if the cow doesn’t listen, and finally a mild shock to reign in really naughty livestock.
In future, this system would also maintain records of the health status of the cattle and also a record of the reactions of each cow to the stimulus given through the system.
Imagine transport systems that are smart enough to understand the situation they are in and act accordingly. Reminds you of some sci-fi movie from the 90s? Well, it’s not sci-fi anymore. Organisations such as Google, Audi and Toyota are into R&D of intelligent transport systems that can increase the safety and comfort of drivers and are in the plans of releasing them for commercial purposes in near future.
New technologies are also used in Aeroplanes these days, which send data about how each component in the aircraft is doing to a central computer for better tracking and management.
MIT is also developing a system named “CarTel” where cars and taxis act as ubiquitous mobile sensors, communicate with each other and avoid traffic hassles. Presently, maintaining traffic and road data is generally done by helicopters or updates from news; CarTel in a way would revolutionise this. It is presently implemented in some cars in Boston that help drivers avoid junctions with traffic and also alert them if there are any potential problems in the engine. CarTel also can maintain a database of where all the car traveled in a day which can be quite useful for taxi provider organisations.
The Internet of Things can also improve the car-sharing systems that are provided by organisations such as ZipShare. But, presently these carsharing services are majorly organised around where the car owner lives and not where the car is majorly parked. Majority of the car owners park their cars in their office parking lots or may be in airports and if someone needs a ride from around that spot, the present car-sharing services won’t be able to identify that. But, with real-time motion sensors embedded in the car, it would be easier to track cars and also connect them to potential renters.
Having smart healthcare systems might be one of the most important applications of future embedded systems. It can revolutionise the way medication is done right now - Doctors can provide remote medication to people living in rural areas which is estimated to reduce more than 15 per cent of medical expenditure in the country and needless to mention the number of lives that would be saved.
Recently, telemedicine has gained a lot of importance and is practically being implemented in countries like France, Spain. But, till now Telemedicine is done in a ‘store and forward’ process where the reports of the patient are sent to doctors who are far away and they advise medication based on the reports.
Unlike the IT industry, the entry barriers in this field is quite high, due to the high level of expertise and experience required. Many of the current Embedded systems Engineers in India confess that the first major practical learning they had was in their first job. So, it is important that you end up in an organisation that has a work environment where you have the Opportunity to work on cutting edge technology. For this, you need to have an open mind to learn and be very passionate about technology and innovation. It is also needless to say that one has to be equipped with the right knowledge of both hardware and software, which is not that easy taking into account the variety of technology platforms in use. Some good research/self-projects while graduation might help students secure a better job opportunity.
Embedded systems are used in almost every Industry today. Organisations varying from automobile manufacturing to mobile manufacturing need Embedded systems Engineers and Designers and it are hence fairly easy to switch between various companies and even industries.