Embedded computers are purpose-built computing platforms, designed for a specific, software-controlled task.
These are not the typical tower or desktop consumer-grade computers we are used to work with at home or at the office. Applications of embedded computers can range from Industrial Automation, Digital Signage, Self-autonomous Vehicles, to Space Exploration, and more.
Typically embedded computers are hardened devices as their use cases tend to be mostly in challenging harsh environment conditions, such as extreme temperature, vibration, shock, dust and humidity.
There are various types of embedded computers, from rugged industrial box PCs to panel PCs, mini PCs, industrial rackmount server, vehicle computers, and IoT gateways.
In this article, we’ll review different types of embedded computers as well as review a use case for each type.
Embedded Systems 101
What is an Embedded Computer
An embedded computer is a microprocessor-based system, specially designed to perform a specific function and belong to a larger system. It comes with a combination of hardware and software to achieve a unique task and withstand different conditions.
Embedded computers offer an intelligent alternative to PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) based automation, as x86 architecture of embedded computers allows for integration of any Windows or Linux based software that is capable of controlling and managing more complex tasks through the program.
Embedded Computer vs Desktop Computer
The main differences between an embedded and a desktop computer are purpose and design. Embedded computers are purposeful and dedicated equipment built from scratch to perform a specific task. It can run at maximum, with low resources, and withstand harsh conditions — something not possible with the consumer-grade computers.
Another crucial distinction is that the general-purpose desktops come with traditional motherboards, which allow you to expand or replace its components. Embedded computers, on the other hand, have all of its components burned-in in a single Printed Circuit Board (PCB) or Motherboard.
Benefits of the Embedded Computer
Embedded computers are designed to be embedded or be part of a larger system for a specific task. They are not in any way better or worse than consumer-grade desktops, but they do have lots of advantages for industrial, military, and agricultural applications. Some of these benefits are:
- Small Factor Size: Embedded computers use small factor motherboards like the Mini-ITX board. Their innovative enclosure designs and next-generation cooling systems also allow them to be small. Most industrial embedded computers are fanless — they only rely on thermodynamic principles. These systems are capable of cooling down without big enclosures and fans.
- Highly Reliable: Some embedded computers are designed for high reliability in critical mission-based applications like industrial or military deployments. They need to operate 24×7 in demanding applications and extreme environments like rugged terrains, continuous vibration, high temperatures, etc. These embedded computers can operate at a wide range of temperatures (e.g. -30°C to 70°C), dust-proof, and with protection from humidity.
- Power Efficiency: Some applications require that embedded computers remain operational, day and night. That is why these computers are designed for power efficiency. Embedded computers come with lightweight and dedicated software so they do not need lots of processing power. Another advantage of power consumption is that some embedded computers come without fans and don’t have any moving components.
Types of Embedded Computer
The Rugged Industrial Box PC
A rugged industrial embedded computer comes within a sophisticated case for protection from rough conditions. The electronics within the computer are also designed to be robust and strong.
Most of the time, the case of the Rugged Box PC is built from anodized aluminum. This makes it durable, resistant to corrosion, dust-proof, and humidity-resistant. The rugged computer can be installed outdoors without any extra layer of protection.
Rugged Industrial Box PCs can be very effective for offshore oil rigs. These facilities are often located in the middle of the ocean and are full of dangerous heavy machinery and flammable substances.
Just like many other remote facilities, offshore oil rig platforms must always be online. Whether is something simple as Wifi Internet access for the employees, or advanced cloud-based surveillance systems and IoT monitoring sensors. At these places, industrial-grade rugged networking equipment can be far more reliable than the traditional consumer-grade hardware. The equipment here should ensure around the clock operation on extremely hot/cold, wet, and corrosion conditions.
The LEC-2260 is a multi-purpose Industrial embedded PC. It operates without a fan at temperatures, from -20°C to 45°C. It can also work at humidity levels between 5% to 95% (non-condensing).
The Panel PC
A Panel PC comes with an integrated display screen and keyboard, and sometimes an all-in-one touchscreen. Panel PCs can be expanded with different I/O modules to meet the standards of the industry. This type of embedded computer is designed to provide easier and better interaction with humans through its interfaces, especially through their rugged screens. Some Panel PCs come with a touchscreen that can be used thorough work gloves and resist toxic materials and shock.
Panel PCs can be used in places where humans don’t have access to. For example for controlling food processing machines, big robot arms, pharmaceuticals, industrial manufacturing, packaging industry, etc.
The assembly line in the manufacturing industry is no place for a consumer-grade PC or tablet. These places are full of chemicals, vibration, water, dust, etc. The touch-screen of a tablet can be easily broken.
Panel PCs are ideal for managing industrial machine processes and can be very efficient in an assembly production line. Workers on an assembly line can touch the computer screen while working. The screen and computer are protected from dust, humidity, chemical liquids, vibration, and extreme temperatures.
The Mini PC
MiniPCs are usually low compute-intensive embedded computers. But the great benefit is that they are very small and usually cheap. The mini PC can be used in small confined spaces where some intelligence is required.
A mini PC embedded computer can be used as a security device in network installations, like a Firewall, or a VPN router. The rugged mini PC is a great choice for manufacturing facilities or industrial installations that require 24×7 operation and security in harsh conditions.
Digital signage at airports is a good application of mini PCs. They can be mounted and easily secured on the back of a display set of airport signage. It can process all information from a central network or cloud and output to a set of displays.
If it is a rugged mini-PC, it can be installed outside of an airport and resist a wide range of temperatures and provide information on arrival and departure flights.
The LEC-7230L is a compact fanless digital signage IPC with Intel Bay Trail CPU. It comes with VGA and HDMI ports and dual Ethernet ports.
The Industrial Rackmount Server
A rackmount server is a type of embedded computer that is designed to be installed in a rack. In contrast with the tower server that can only stand by itself, a rackmount server can be mounted in the rack with many other servers stacked on top.
Industrial rackmount servers are considered rugged high-performance computers. They usually come with a powerful CPU and memory. Since they are used in challenging and harsh conditions within the industry (and not in a Data Center with A/C), they are designed to be rugged. This type of embedded computers are high performers that can tolerate a wide temperature range (-40~70°C).
An electrical or power substation is the interface between the distribution grid and the transmission systems. Usually, the distribution grid has all the intelligence, but adding some computational power locally can prove to be a lot more efficient and reliable.
These power substations need some type of digital controllers with a wide range of I/O ports, from Ethernet, graphic controllers, display output, serial ports, USB, and more. The rackmount embedded computer is the key to the puzzle. It provides strong computing capabilities with remote management and monitoring.
An example of this type of embedded computer is the LEC-3340. This device is an IEC 61850-3 compliant 3U Rackmount Controller System designed for Power Substations.
The Vehicle Computer
An in-vehicle embedded computer is a fanless, rugged, and temperature-wide box. This type of embedded computers is designed for the purpose. They are rugged devices that can withstand vibration, harsh temperature, dust, and humidity in the environment. They also come with wireless capabilities to enable mobility and long-range communications.
Emergency response vehicles such as police, ambulance, or firefighters are always on the move at high speeds and often through rough roads. The nature of the job requires fast and always-on connectivity to the base station. The vehicle needs to send data such as video or pictures during critical situations in near real-time for feedback and support.
An in-vehicle embedded computer provides a reliable and fast connection to the remote home base. And it could also be used as an NVR (Network Video Recorder) for processing video much faster.
Lanner’s V6S can be installed in first response vehicles. It will record and analyze the video in digital format and send it over to the base station.
The IoT Gateway
An IoT gateway provides a connection between different types of communication technologies. These technologies can vary in terms of connectivity types, protocols, or interfaces. The IoT Gateway is like the Internet gateway at home, which connects the Internet through PPP or HDLC with your LAN through Ethernet or WiFi.
The IoT Gateway can be a bridge between the IoT sensors/actuators and the Internet. It aggregates data from external sources, translates protocols, and pre-process the data. The IoT devices can connect to the IoT gateway via short-range (Zigbee, Bluetooth) or long-range (LTE, LTE-M) wireless technologies.
An embedded IoT gateway that is optimized for machine vision and physical security is an excellent option for the automation of manufacturing processes. For example, Cobots (Collaboration Robots) are being used for picking up, arranging, and moving things in manufacturing houses. These robots can work alongside humans and without safety cages. Their safety is refined by powerful machine vision embedded computers.
An IoT gateway optimized for machine vision can process 3D-video inputs almost in real-time and send it to the cobot for rapid decision-making and to avoid accidents with humans.
The LEC-2137 is an example of an industrial IoT-ready solution for machine vision.
The way computers operate within the industry is not the same as how they are used at home or at the office. The industry has different requirements and standards that demand another kind of computer.
The embedded computers are designed with the application in mind. They are being used in unimaginable applications within the industry that seemed impossible a few years ago. They are often designed to operate 24×7 at low energy levels in rough environments and tiny spaces.
Rugged Industrial Box PC, Panel PC, Mini PC, Industrial Rackmount Server, in-Vehicle Computer, IoT Gateway, are all types of embedded computers.
- The Rugged Industrial Box is excellent for applications that require processing power in harsh environment conditions.
- The Panel PC comes with an integrated display screen that allows interface with the computer and to resist shock and toxic chemicals.
- The mini-PC, although it is not compute-intensive, it can bring some intelligence to rough small and confined spaces.
- Opposite to the mini-pc, the Industrial Rackmount can be used as a high intensive-compute and racked on top of other servers, without the need of A/C or optimal environments.
- The in-vehicle computer comes with wireless communication and vibrant-resistant capabilities to be used in first emergency-response vehicles, or similar applications.
- The IoT gateway is a type of embedded computer that can act as a bridge between different technologies. It accepts inputs from IoT sensors or video cameras, processes the data, and can output to a display, actuator, or the Internet.