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What is an Embedded Computer?

After hearing about embedded computers, you may be asking what is all about. Computers in Iraq or at the CIA headquarters? A device that can be used for spying enemies? Or to monitor babysitters?

Embedded computers are the “brains” behind many everyday mechanisms, such as wireless devices, cars, climate control systems, traffic signals, and washing machines, as well as complex systems, including space mission controls, avionics, and weapons systems.

One of the respected experts in this field is Sandeep Shukla, an associate professor at the Virginia Tech College of Engineering's Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Among Shukla’s current research focuses is the development of embedded software code generation for space and aviation mission applications.

“The makers of the Airbus 380 claim to have all control software automatically generated,” he said. “We should develop similar technology to increase productivity and safety of embedded software-based space- and air-borne systems.”

“Because nanoscale devices are so small and the manufacturing process is affected by so much variation and inaccuracy, a significant percentage of computer chip devices manufactured at the nano-scale are defective,” he said.

Shukla’s work in designing, analyzing, and predicting the performance of electronic systems — particularly embedded computers — has drawn acclaim from the National Academies, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the White House.

Unlike a general-purpose computer, such as a personal computer, an embedded system performs one or a few pre-defined tasks, usually with very specific requirements, and often includes task-specific hardware and mechanical parts not usually found in a general-purpose computer. Since the system is dedicated to specific tasks, design engineers can optimize it, reducing the size and cost of the product. Embedded systems are often mass-produced, benefiting from economies of scale.

In the earliest years of computers in the 1940s, computers were sometimes dedicated to a single task, but were too large to be considered "embedded". Over time however, the concept of programmable controllers developed from a mix of computer technology, solid state devices, and traditional electromechanical sequences.

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