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Examples of properties of typical embedded computers when compared with general-purpose counterparts are low power consumption, small size, rugged operating ranges, and low per-unit cost. This comes at the price of limited processing resources, which make them significantly more difficult to program and to interact with. However, by building intelligence mechanisms on top of the hardware, taking advantage of possible existing sensors and the existence of a network of embedded units, one can both optimally manage available resources at the unit and network levels as well as provide augmented functions, well beyond those available. For example, intelligent techniques can be designed to manage power consumption of embedded systems.
Since the embedded system is dedicated to specific tasks, design engineers can optimize it to reduce the size and cost of the product and increase the reliability and performance. At the project’s inception, the Apollo guidance computer was considered the riskiest item in the Apollo project as it employed the then newly developed monolithic integrated circuits to reduce the size and weight. When the Minuteman II went into production in 1966, the D-17 was replaced with a new computer that was the first high-volume use of integrated circuits. Since these early applications in the 1960s, embedded systems have come down in price and there has been a dramatic rise in processing power and functionality. In 1978 National Engineering Manufacturers Association released a “standard” for programmable microcontrollers, including almost any computer-based controllers, such as single board computers, numerical, and event-based controllers. Microcontrollers find applications where a general-purpose computer would be too costly. A comparatively low-cost microcontroller may be programmed to fulfill the same role as a large number of separate components.
Although in this context an embedded system is usually more complex than a traditional solution, most of the complexity is contained within the microcontroller itself. Very few additional components may be needed and most of the design effort is in the software. Software prototype and test can be quicker compared with the design and construction of a new circuit not using an embedded processor. Embedded systems are commonly found in consumer, cooking, industrial, automotive, medical, commercial and military applications.