Most individuals have experience with embedded systems, even if they don’t know them by that name. For example, most portable MP3 players, digital watches, and programmable microwave ovens implement embedded systems — and that’s just on the consumer products side. Embedded systems are also commonly used in hybrid cars, advanced healthcare technology, and even rocket ships.
What is an embedded system, exactly? The simplest way to think of an embedded system is as a small, self-contained ecosystem in which individual software components act as one and are designed to fulfill a specific function. An embedded system is so named because it’s usually embedded in a larger electronic or mechanical system. For example, in a self-driving car, the automated power train is an embedded system: a collection of individual components that work as a cohesive unit, in the context of an even larger electronic or mechanical system.
An entire field of engineering is devoted to the development of these systems. Indeed, the role of embedded systems engineer is increasingly common in fields as far-ranging as aviation, medical technology, and beyond.
The work of the embedded systems engineer encompasses such disciplines as computer and software engineering, but with a few added complexities. For example, since most embedded systems control the physical operation of a machine, there may be some real-time limitations and constraints. An embedded system must be designed to fulfill its basic computing functions within these constraints.
Those who wish to find work as an embedded systems engineer will want to ensure they have the right academic foundation; this means earning a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in electrical engineering or a related field.
What Does an Embedded Systems Engineer Do?
At a fundamental level, this role involves developing and overseeing the construction of complex embedded systems. Those in the role may use software engineering or computer engineering components to form a cohesive system that performs a specific task, such as a sensor or an actuator in a device. Sensors and actuators are crucial to embedded systems, effectively mediating between the external environment and the system itself. (They often work as a dyad: Sensors measure external changes, such as temperature or pressure, and the actuator responds to those external changes by making adjustments in the system itself.)
Embedded Systems Engineer Job Description
The embedded systems engineer may oversee all aspects of an embedded system. This may include the design, development, construction, testing, and maintenance of an embedded system. While embedded systems generally have both software and hardware components, many of the engineers involved will focus primarily on the software side of things. For this reason, the title embedded systems engineer is sometimes interchangeably used with embedded software engineer.
The work of an embedded systems engineer will often begin with design and development. In this stage of the process, the engineer will create blueprints or diagrams of systems made to accomplish a particular task, then refine their design through collaboration with other engineers. An embedded systems engineer may oversee the construction of the system, which can include both programming software or building hardware. The engineer will run the system through a battery of tests, ensuring that it performs at an optimal level in different conditions (for example, in different temperatures or humidity levels). Note that much of an embedded systems engineer’s job is providing technical documentation that fully articulates how the system is meant to function.
Primary Components of an Embedded System
It’s crucial to understand the basic components that make up a typical embedded system. The three main components of the average embedded system are as follows:
- Analog sensors that allow the system to collect data in real time. Depending on the device in question, this data may be something as simple as the temperature, acceleration, or pressure.
- Microprocessors, microcontrollers, and actuators. These allow for decision-making and automation. They respond to external stimuli (as provided by the sensors) and facilitate adjustments in the system itself.
- Embedded software. This contains the coding that allows the system to run on its own, without the need for input from a human user. This is especially critical in applications such as driverless cars, in which the entire point is to have a system that operates autonomously.
The overarching goal of the engineer is to create a self-contained system in which each of these components works harmoniously with one another, in pursuit of a clearly defined function or desired outcome. For example, a car has many embedded systems, including an antilock braking system and an airbag deployment system. Each system has a very specific function. The engineer works to ensure that the function is carried out properly, with each individual component doing what it’s meant to do.
How to Become an Embedded Systems Engineer
Anyone interested in becoming an embedded systems engineer will need to develop certain foundational skills. One of the best ways to do this is by completing an advanced degree in electrical engineering, computer science, or a related field.
Some embedded systems engineering positions may only require a bachelor’s degree, but it can be beneficial to pursue a more advanced degree, including a master’s degree or potentially a doctoral degree. These more advanced programs offer additional opportunities to cultivate key skills. They can provide a greater competitive advantage in the job market and help obtain higher salaries or positions of greater responsibility.
Embedded Systems Engineering Certificates
There are also opportunities to earn certificates in the field of embedded systems engineering. These certificates are usually unnecessary; generally, degrees and professional experience carry more weight. That said, some projects may require an additional level of certification. Some examples of certifications include the following:
- Certified LabVIEW Embedded Systems Developer (CLED)
- Certified Manufacturing Engineer (CMfgE)
- Certified Automation Professional (CAP)
Essential Skills in Embedded Systems Engineering
Through degree programs, certificates, and professional experience, the embedded system engineer can develop the skills that are foundational to success. Some examples include the following:
The successful embedded systems engineer will have a robust competency in computer science and computer languages such as C, C++, Rust, and Python, as well as an assembly language.
A significant portion of the job is providing comprehensive technical documentation. Skill in research grant writing is also a plus, though usually not a requirement.
The engineer should be able to manage, process, and analyze large volumes of technical data using programs like Microsoft Excel and MATLAB.
Internet of Things Proficiency
Familiarity with internet of things frameworks and platforms is another plus. Some examples include Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, and IBM Watson.
An embedded systems engineering role may also require the design of specialized hardware in programs such as computer-aided design (CAD).
Analytical and Problem-Solving Skills
Successful engineers will be able to clearly understand the functions necessary from their systems and address any obstacles or roadblocks that arise during development.
Success in this field will require the engineer to stay organized and balance different priorities and projects while still meeting important deadlines.
Teamwork and Leadership
In most cases, the engineer will work with a team of other engineers and, in some cases, may rise to a leadership position in that team. Therefore the ability to collaborate is key.
Embedded Systems Engineer Salary Overview
Before pursuing a career as an embedded systems engineer, it’s useful to review the typical median annual salary of the position, as well as some of the factors that can impact an engineer’s overall income.
Median Embedded Systems Engineer Salary
How much does the average embedded systems engineer make? According to PayScale, the median annual salary is about $77,500, as of March 2020. Some jobs also provide opportunities to earn bonuses or share in profits from the final project.
Several factors can impact the total salary potential of the embedded systems engineer. Experience level is one factor; those with more tenure in the field will typically command higher salaries. Location is another factor, with larger markets offering more generous salaries.
A final factor to consider is education level. Those who have advanced degrees, such as a master’s degree in electrical engineering, will typically earn higher salaries than those without advanced degrees.
Embedded Systems Engineer Job Outlook
While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t have a specific category for embedded systems engineering, it does offer job outlook data for some related fields. The BLS projects electrical and electronics engineering jobs to grow by 2% and software developer jobs to grow by 21% between 2018 and 2028.
The Future of Embedded Systems
The field of embedded systems engineering is constantly evolving. As technology itself grows more robust and sophisticated, embedded systems must become increasingly small, responsive, and effective.
This presents many challenges for embedded systems engineering professionals, but also many opportunities. Those who have honed their skills in advanced degree programs may be better equipped to seize these opportunities and contribute truly forward-thinking, innovative work.
Here are a few examples of trends at the forefront of embedded systems engineering.
The internet of things (IoT) refers to the trend of more and more devices, appliances, and consumer goods being wired for internet connectivity. Actually, most IoT devices are embedded systems that are connected to the web.
One of the ambitions of IoT proponents is a world where devices can receive and process greater amounts of data, from the cloud or another web-based resource. To make this dream a reality, embedded systems engineers will need to discover new ways to make their technological ecosystems both more compact and robust.
IoT technology is becoming increasingly commonplace. A Loriot report notes that, in 2019, there were more than 9.5 billion IoT devices worldwide. As the technology advances, applications become more numerous and robust. Some examples of current IoT trends and developments include the following:
- “Smart” (internet-enabled) home technology, allowing for appliances, household thermostats, home theaters, and home security systems to be automated and connected through a central hub
- IoT-embedded medical tools and devices, effectively enabling any operating room to become a smart operating room, connecting physicians and nurses to real-time data
- Asset tracking technology, enabling companies to remain “connected” to products or shipments at all times, no matter where they’re sent
Wearable devices are likewise becoming more commonplace. Examples include Apple Watch, wearable pedometers, and other fitness-tracking devices. Again, most devices that fall into this category use embedded system technology.
Wearable technology is poised to become increasingly essential across a range of fields, but the most exciting applications are in healthcare. For example, medical providers depend on wearable devices more and more to help collect patient-specific data, like heart rates and steps taken. An article from Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) discusses the myriad ways in which medical organizations are now implementing wearable devices: “Wearable devices can be attached to shoes, eyeglasses, earrings, clothing, gloves, and watches. Wearable devices also may evolve to be skin-attachable devices. Sensors can be embedded into the environment, such as chairs, car seats and mattresses. A smartphone is typically used to collect information and transmit it to a remote server for storage and analysis.”
Devices worn on clothing or attached to the skin have shown practical use in several ways. For example, small sensors worn on the clothing of elderly people have provided researchers with data about activities or patterns that typically lead to falls. Using this data, administrators in senior living communities can better construct environments and coordinate activities that minimize the risk of falling, thereby keeping patients safe.
Another example is that medical researchers have created tiny devices that can be worn by students, tracking their basic body movements. If the students are sedentary for too long, the device provides a gentle vibration, reminding them to get up and move around for a few moments. This is a small yet potentially significant way in which embedded systems can help mediate the adverse health effects that come from the sedentary lifestyle.
This is another area where experienced engineering professionals will have ample opportunity to develop new applications.
Driverless cars have long seemed like a pipe dream, but in recent years they have started to become a reality. Large enterprises like Google and Uber have invested heavily in driverless car technology, and a few states have given the green light to autonomous vehicles.
Many of the key features of driverless cars, including the automated power trains, rely on embedded systems. According to an article in Design News, the evolution of automated vehicles runs parallel to that of embedded systems. “The advent of such cars will go hand-in-hand with the development of intelligent infrastructure systems that essentially direct the behavior of the vehicle,” the article states.
Engineers will have many opportunities to make these systems more effective and less expensive, which could in turn make self-driving vehicles much more accessible and commonplace. If they could be made more efficiently, autonomous cars could become much more commonplace as forms of public transportation or used in ride-hailing fleets. This could yield real public health benefits. For example, the ability to easily hail a self-driving vehicle could prevent inebriated individuals from getting behind the wheel, thereby reducing drunk driving accidents.
Smart Home Devices
Home automation is increasingly popular, with more homeowners seeking simple ways to manage their households more effectively. Some examples include smart thermostats, smart home security systems, and the virtual assistants available from Amazon, Apple, and Google.
Smart home devices are a subset of IoT technology, and embedded systems are needed for these devices to work the way they’re intended to work. An article in Dataweek makes the connection clear: “Smart electronic products are becoming fundamental to the way people live, and embedded systems now permeate everyday life.This ubiquity is helping to shape some of the key trends in embedded systems development, driving both functionality and ease of use.”
Smart technology can make everyday life easier in many ways. A smart refrigerator can sync with the user’s phone, providing automated grocery lists or alerts when the milk or eggs are running low. Smart bedrooms can learn when occupants wake up each morning, then alter the temperature or even emit a soothing scent to welcome them into the new day. Voice assistants can run a bath or start a shower, at a preferred temperature, in response to a user’s command.
Embedded systems engineering professionals can play a significant role in making these devices more effective, affordable, and reliable. In doing so, they can provide opportunities for home automation devices to become more standardized and thus available to more homeowners.
Diving Into an Emerging Field
Embedded systems engineering is a relatively new field, yet already it has its tendrils in several areas of commerce and day-to-day life, from automotive innovation to everyday household products.
As such, embedded systems engineers have a number of promising career paths. Those who seek work in this field will find plenty of chances to solve problems, leverage their analytical skills, and develop new technological possibilities.
The best way to succeed in this field is by pursuing an advanced education. A program like Ohio University’s online Master of Science in Electrical Engineering will offer a chance to develop salient skills. Indeed, the curriculum in this program includes classes such as Engineering Writing and Vehicle Control Systems, with coursework devoted to embedded systems.
Embedded systems engineering is a field with abundant opportunity. Those who develop these technical skills can make positive contributions to consumer electronics, medical devices, and even cutting-edge automotive technology. For those with a creative mind and a love of critical thinking, this can be a highly rewarding field. Discover more details today.