IoT Fundamentals, Embedded Systems, IIoT

What Are Embedded Systems and Their Applications?

In a world where technology and data dominate the landscape, utilizing information for  business' purposes can go a long way. Getting creative with new ways to use the information helps put many businesses in the lead. This is where the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and embedded systems start to play a part.

IIoT gadgets gather data solely for industrial uses. All of the machines in a warehouse, for instance, connect under a single network to complete a job, and they save data and send it to the cloud in the process. The IIoT allows manufacturers to operate in this digital world and use the data it creates.

What Are Embedded Systems?

Embedded systems typically include microcontrollers and small, local memory footprints. Embedded systems have both hardware and software that work together by triggering components such as actuators and sensors to perform tasks.

For example, a factory might have connected thermometers that help managers ensure that perishable items stay in optimal conditions. The embedded system for that thermometer would have, at minimum, a temperature sensor and a Wi-Fi module. The sensor gathers data and the module transmits it to the cloud, allowing users to analyze the data.

People don't have to directly interact with the embedded system because it works inside of a connected product. So, they see the results of the embedded system through the features of their IIoT setups.  

The embedded system can be simple or complex depending on the features offered by the IIoT product that has one. Any system could control a multitude of parts like sensors, gateways into power lines or communications, security systems and much more. As the number of internal components goes up, the embedded system becomes more elaborate.

Embedded Systems in Daily Life

Embedded software isn't restricted entirely to the industrial sector. Average households have simpler embedded systems all over their home and use them every day. In fact, most electrical devices have an embedded system of some kind to ensure they can work properly. Digital alarm clocks, washing machines, dishwashers, air conditioners and many other electronic products have embedded systems.

Modern cars have embedded systems such as the traction controls and airbag deployment too. They send inputs to the automobile's central computer system. Like the examples above, these features influence the experiences that people have while driving their cars, but they don’t notice the systems because they work in the background.

The very definition of an embedded system is to have a product with a dedicated purpose within a larger product, acting together to produce the result. Much of the same goes for the IoT. Data is constantly taken and recorded throughout our daily lives. Whether from using a search engine, online shopping or listing your hobbies on social media, the IoT collects non-personal information and uses this data to improve its performance, like how to guess patterns or learn better efficiency. Both the IoT and embedded systems go beyond simple household use, though, and work on a much larger scale in the industry.

Applications to Industry

Embedded systems are used in almost all industries. Telecommunications, manufacturing, military defense and scientific research are just a few of the many sectors where people rely on them to achieve their goals and work more efficiently by reducing manual processes.

Automation is a big part of why embedded systems are so important. Technology such as pneumatic robot arms that work on conveyor belts run with an embedded system. Not only does every part of the arm need to work seamlessly with the rest of the machine, but other arms also have to work together to make the one part they're all building. This kind of technology can also connect several pieces of machinery so that they work together to tackle jobs simultaneously. For example, some bricklaying robots connect to the internet and have internal systems that synchronize their actions to get results faster than humans could alone.

Benefits and Challenges

One of the strongest benefits of embedded systems is the low level of power consumption. All embedded systems work with very little power and fit into tiny spaces compared to other components. They are typically inexpensive and work without constant human input. They require very little maintenance and don't often need updates since they only have one job.

Unfortunately, since embedded systems often keep running smoothly without updates and they work inside machines, they rarely get upgraded. If you want something new, you'll often have to get an entirely new machine or completely de-construct the old one, depending on what's more cost-effective in the long run. If something goes wrong, requiring more maintenance than usual, reprogramming the embedded system can be just as difficult as upgrading.


An embedded system can be very secure simply because it’s self-contained. If a threat does enter the system, though, this could mean big trouble for an enterprise. If a manufacturer uses an embedded system, the components could control heavy machinery. But, a security flaw may make the machines operate in ways that put the the safety of workers at stake, plus damage the equipment and cause assembly lines to shut down. Making sure everything stays secure requires a holistic approach.

The basics of cybersecurity include firewalls, encryption, source verification, authentication and other practices that most people have at least a basic familiarity with if they use the internet. Creating cybersecurity for an embedded system must go above and beyond the usual. Security implementation starts from the development stage and evolves as the system’s construction progresses. Then, once the system is up and running, users must respond quickly if they notice potential vulnerabilities. Such responsiveness is crucial to avoiding widespread security issues throughout the system’s life cycle.

Making Industry Stronger

Since embedded systems control so many processes, a company may find it difficult to remain competitive and utilize complicated equipment without them. They offer automation that increases safety and affordability for businesses. For example, if a construction company has embedded systems on its bulldozers, the technology could give warnings that one of them needs prompt servicing before it breaks down or poses a safety hazard.

Plus, despite the fears that many people have about high-tech machines eventually replacing the jobs that humans do, connected equipment usually acts as a supplement to the labor force. Human workers can be shuffled around to handle jobs the hardware can't perform, potentially getting a pay increase while they're at it, but the hardware can stay on one line and perform the same task repeatedly without making errors or needing breaks.

Without embedded systems, the revolution of automation wouldn't exist at all. The industrial revolution made possible through the IIoT is making embedded systems more common in not just industry, but in commercial and residential use as well. Almost everything could work through similar systems, but keeping up with the security component must be a priority throughout the transformation.

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About Kayla Matthews

Matthews is a tech writer who pens stories pertaining to IoT, connectivity, and automation. Find her work on InformationWeek, The Daily Dot, WIRED and others, or follow her on Twitter to read more.