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Chapter: Embedded and Real Time Systems : Introduction to Embedded Computing

Complex Systems and Microprocessors

What is an embedded computer system? Loosely defined, it is any device that includes a programmable computer but is not itself intended to be a general-purpose computer. Thus, a PC is not itself an embedded computing system, although PCs are often used to build embedded computing systems. But a fax machine or a clock built from a microprocessor is an embedded computing system.



What is an embedded computer system? Loosely defined, it is any device that includes a programmable computer but is not itself intended to be a general-purpose computer. Thus, a PC is not itself an embedded computing system, although PCs are often used to build embedded computing systems. But a fax machine or a clock built from a microprocessor is an embedded computing system.


This means that embedded computing system design is a useful skill for many types of product design. Automobiles, cell phones, and even household appliances make extensive use of microprocessors. Designers in many fields must be able to identify where microprocessors can be used, design a hardware platform with I/O devices that can support the required tasks, and implement software that performs the required processing.


Computer engineering, like mechanical design or thermodynamics, is a fundamental discipline that can be applied in many different domains. But of course, embedded computing system design does not stand alone.


Many of the challenges encountered in the design of an embedded computing system are not computer engineering—for example,they may be mechanical or analog electrical problems. In this book we are primarily interested in the embedded computer itself, so we will concentrate on the hardware and software that enable the desired functions in the final product.


Embedding Computers


Computers have been embedded into applications since the earliest days of computing. One example is the Whirlwind, a computer designed at MIT in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Whirlwind was also the first computer designed to support real-time operation and was originally conceived as a mechanism for controlling an aircraft simulator.


Even though it was extremely large physically compared to today’s computers (e.g., it contained over 4,000 vacuum tubes), its complete design from components to system was attuned to the needs of real-time embedded computing.


The utility of computers in replacing mechanical or human controllers was evident from the very beginning of the computer era—for example, computers were proposed to control chemical processes in the late 1940s.


A microprocessor is a single-chip CPU. Very large scale integration (VLSI) stet the acronym is the name technology has allowed us to put a complete CPU on a single chip since 1970s, but those CPUs were very simple.


The first microprocessor, the Intel 4004, was designed for an embedded application, namely, a calculator. The calculator was not a general-purpose computer—it merely provided basic arithmetic functions. However, Ted Hoff of Intel realized that a general-purpose computer programmed properly could implement the required function, and that the computer-on-a-chip could then be reprogrammed for use in other products as well.


Since integrated circuit design was (and still is) an expensive and time consuming process, the ability to reuse the hardware design by changing the software was a key breakthrough.


The HP-35 was the first handheld calculator to perform transcendental functions [Whi72]. It was introduced in 1972, so it used several chips to implement the CPU, rather than a single-chip microprocessor.


However, the ability to write programs to perform math rather than having to design digital circuits to perform operations like trigonometric functions was critical to the successful design of the calculator.



Automobile designers started making use of the microprocessor soon after single-chip CPUs became available.


The most important and sophisticated use of microprocessors in automobiles was to control the engine: determining when spark plugs fire, controlling the fuel/air mixture, and so on. There was a trend toward electronics in automobiles in general—electronic devices could be used to replace the mechanical distributor.


But the big push toward microprocessor-based engine control came from two nearly simultaneous developments: The oil shock of the 1970s caused consumers to place much higher value on fuel economy, and fears of pollution resulted in laws restricting automobile engine emissions.


The combination of low fuel consumption and low emissions is very difficult to achieve; to meet these goals without compromising engine performance, automobile manufacturers turned to sophisticated control algorithms that could be implemented only with microprocessors.


Microprocessors come in many different levels of sophistication; they are usually classified by their word size. An 8-bit microcontroller is designed for low-cost applications and includes on-board memory and I/O devices; a 16-bit microcontroller is often used for more sophisticated applications that may require either longer word lengths or off-chip I/O and memory; and a 32-bit RISC microprocessor offers very high performance for computation-intensive applications.


Given the wide variety of microprocessor types available, it should be no surprise that microprocessors are used in many ways. There are many household uses of microprocessors. The typical microwave oven has at least one microprocessor to control oven operation.


Many houses have advanced thermostat systems, which change the temperature level at various times during the day. The modern camera is a prime example of the powerful features that can be added under microprocessor control.


Digital television makes extensive use of embedded processors. In some cases, specialized CPUs are designed to execute important algorithms—an example is the CPU designed for audio processing in the SGS Thomson chip set for DirecTV [Lie98]. This processor is designed to efficiently implement programs for digital audio decoding.


A programmable CPU was used rather than a hardwired unit for two reasons: First, it made the system easier to design and debug; and second, it allowed the possibility of upgrades and using the CPU for other purposes.


A high-end automobile may have 100 microprocessors, but even inexpensive cars today use 40 microprocessors. Some of these microprocessors do very simple things such as detect whether seat belts are in use. Others control critical functions such as the ignition and braking systems.


BMW 850i brake and stability control system:


The BMW 850i was introduced with a sophisticated system for controlling the wheels of the car. An antilock brake system (ABS) reduces skidding by pumping the brakes.


An automatic stability control (ASC +T) system intervenes with the engine during maneuvering to improve the car’s stability. These systems actively control critical systems of the car; as control systems, they require inputs from and output to the automobile.


Let’s first look at the ABS. The purpose of an ABS is to temporarily release the brake on a wheel when it rotates too slowly—when a wheel stops turning, the car starts skidding and becomes hard to control. It sits between the hydraulic pump, which provides power to the brakes, and the brakes themselves as seen in the following diagram. This hookup allows the ABS system to modulate the brakes in order to keep the wheels from locking.


The ABS system uses sensors on each wheel to measure the speed of the wheel. The wheel speeds are used by the ABS system to determine how to vary the hydraulic fluid pressure to prevent the wheels from skidding.

T he ASC + T system’s job is to control the engine power and the brake to improve the car’s stability during maneuvers.

The ASC+T controls four different systems: throttle, ignition timing, differential brake, and (on automatic transmission cars) gear shifting.


The ASC + T can be turned off by the driver, which can be important when operating with tire snow chains.


The ABS and ASC+ T must clearly communicate because the ASC + T interacts with the brake system. Since the ABS was introduced several years earlier than the ASC + T, it was important to be able to interface ASC + T to the existing ABS module, as well as to other existing electronic modules.


The engine and control management units include the electronically controlled throttle, digital engine management, and electronic transmission control. The ASC + T control unit has two microprocessors on two printed circuit boards, one of which concentrates on logic-relevant components and the other on performance-specific components.


Characteristics of Embedded Computing Applications


Embedded computing is in many ways much more demanding than the sort of programs that you may have written for PCs or workstations. Functionality is important in both general-purpose computing and embedded computing, but embedded applications must meet many other constraints as well.


On the one hand, embedded computing systems have to provide sophisticated functionality:


Complex algorithms: The operations performed by the microprocessor may be very sophisticated. For example, the microprocessor that controls an automobile engine must perform complicated filtering functions to optimize the performance of the car while minimizing pollution and fuel utilization.


User interface: Microprocessors are frequently used to control complex user interfaces that may include multiple menus and many options. The moving maps in Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation are good examples of sophisticated user interfaces.


To make things more difficult, embedded computing operations must often be performed to meet deadlines:


Real time: Many embedded computing systems have to perform in real time— if the data is not ready by a certain deadline, the system breaks. In some cases, failure to meet a deadline is unsafe and can even endanger lives. In other cases, missing a deadline does not create safety problems but does create unhappy customers—missed deadlines in printers, for example, can result in scrambled pages.


Multirate: Not only must operations be completed by deadlines, but many embedded computing systems have several real-time activities going on at the same time. They may simultaneously control some operations that run at slow rates and others that run at high rates. Multimedia applications are prime examples of multirate behavior. The audio and video portions of a multimedia stream run at very different rates, but they must remain closely synchronized. Failure to meet a deadline on either the audio or video portions spoils the perception of the entire presentation.


Costs of various sorts are also very important:

Manufacturing cost: The total cost of building the system is very important in many cases. Manufacturing cost is determined by many factors, including the type of microprocessor used, the amount of memory required, and the types of I/O devices.


Power and energy: Power consumption directly affects the cost of the hardware, since a larger power supply may be necessary. Energy consumption affects battery life, which is important in many applications, as well as heat consumption, which can be important even in desktop applications.

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