Embedded Computing

An embedded computing system is a computer within a larger system that performs a dedicated function or functions, usually with specific requirements. Embedded computers used in unmanned systems applications are often characterised by their low SWaP-C (Size, Weight, Power, and Cost) profiles, Small Form Factor (SFF) and rugged operating ranges, which are vital concerns for UAVs, AUVs and ROVs.

Dedicated functions assigned to embedded computers may include video compression and streaming for drones, deep learning and neural networks for image classification and object detection in autonomous cars, and processing of sensor-acquired data (e.g. from GPS/INS or AHRS systems) for a variety of unmanned vehicles.

In addition to a processor and memory, an embedded computing system may have a variety of peripherals such as integrated graphics cards with DVI and HDMI output, external storage options such as microSD cards and external SATA hard drive connectors, and support for a variety of communications protocols including USB, Ethernet and serial RS-232/485.

Embedded computing devices may be capable of connecting to short-range proprietary networks or of being part of the Internet of Things (IoT) via Ethernet, wifi or cellular connections. Unmanned systems may use this capability to transmit video, still images and other data back to a Ground Control Station or other monitoring facility.

Cooling is an important consideration for the design of rugged embedded computers intended for use in the harsh environments of unmanned systems.  The use of fans creates a point of failure and leaves an opening for dust and moisture ingress, so passive cooling techniques such as heatsinks are often used. This eliminates noise and creates more space. Enclosures will be designed for maximum heat dissipation while protecting electronic components from extremes of temperature and vibration as well as water and dust.

Many embedded computing systems, particularly those intended for use in military UAVs and other robotic platforms, will be compliant with strict environmental, power and EMC standards.

Manufacturers of embedded computers have developed a range of rugged Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) computing platforms, Single Board Computers (SBCs) and processing modules suitable for use in unmanned and autonomous systems.