Have you ever looked at a device and wondered how they could possibly fit all those features and intelligence inside a single, tiny device? Chances are it's been happening more frequently, and there are no signs of slowing down.
Today, you already see products like credit cards with security chips inside or car tires that wirelessly communicate with the vehicle about road conditions, tire inflation and temperature.
Embedded solutions are everywhere, and most people don't even know it. Soon, even engineers won't be able to tell. In the next two years, various advances in embedded electronics will combine, creating some highly integrated products that look as though they lack all the necessary electronics due to the tiny nature of the circuitry in addition to the seamless integration into the product.
Electronics will soon be woven into everything we touch, including fabrics! The best (most unique) example of this can be seen today in Formula One racecars. These envelope-pushing engineers have come up with a solution to address the increase in weight caused by added electronics used to boost engine performance and add features like the KERS system.
To reduce weight, size and drag coefficient engineers found a way to embed a portion of the vehicle's circuitry into the lightweight carbon fiber frame. These circuits and devices are built for a couple hundred degrees of heat and serious vibrations at average speeds over 200 mph and 4g of acceleration.
Every year, more and more performance and adaptability are added to these racecars through embedded electronics. This is an extreme example, but, as you can see, this type of technology is already out there, and has been for a few years, showing that the technology could realistically be making it into more fiscally reasonable markets very soon.
Basically, there are two different types of deeply embedded solutions, all of which are invisible to the naked eye and have a lifespan measured in years. The first are intelligence adders, which appear in everyday objects enabling cool new features without any visible change in the form factor.
There will not be any new requirements or instructions for the user, and the device will just work with new intelligent features like wireless communication or biometric identification.
These include band-aids with heart monitors and wireless radios built-in to communicate with a cell phone or bedside instrumentation. The second are solutions enabled by deeply embedded technologies.
These applications will drastically improve our security and real-time knowledge of the world around us. This includes applications like sensors inside the walls of buildings and bridges to monitor the stress and condition of the structure without the need to ever change batteries or replace the devices.
You can already see some of these applications emerging today in many different areas including credit cards and car keys. They make people's lives more secure and less disposable, and this is just the beginning.
Can you imagine clothes that can sense the weather and change their composition to keep out water, or bandages that can track how fast your wound is healing and help it along as well?
For years, several companies have been working at embedding bare die into applications, and this has created many interesting products where form factor previously prevented any integrated circuitry. In addition, package sizes have shrunk so much across all three axes that there are chips that literally look like glitter to the human eye, measuring as little as .1 mm2.
|Figure 1. These RFID chips measure .05 x.05 mm.|
One example of this can clearly be seen in the medical device market. Chris Toumazou of Toumaz Technology Limited (also a professor at the Imperial College of London) just won the World Technology Award for Health and Medicine for his Sensium device which integrates an MCU, RF and various medical sensors onto a single device that can monitor and transmit while embedded in a container the size of a stack of quarters.
In the next few years, these devices will get smaller and more powerful, able to monitor nearly all of the necessary vital signs from inside a common band-aid. Devices like this could even run off of energy harvested from the very body they are monitoring for a nearly infinite lifespan, or they could use disposable batteries to make the whole operation completely transparent to the patient.
Medical device manufacturers aren't the only ones demanding smaller, integrated devices. Automotive companies are always looking for news ways to enhance the customer experience and differentiate themselves in a mature market. One way they are doing this is by adding biometric security to keys, doors, mirrors, and many other places.
Modern vehicles will soon be copying the Formula One racers that were mentioned earlier with more and more embedded electronics all over the vehicle. The latest top of the line luxury vehicles already have more than 70 microcontrollers and processors on board, so where else can they go?
Chips will be embedded into solar panels, door handles, seats and the frame of the vehicle itself so that it can provide a safety system that can anticipate and react to potential threats. Here, embedding electronics will enable, smarter, safer, lighter and more efficient vehicles without any added complexity being passed on to the driver.
As you can see, these new solutions are already starting to appear, but will soon be all over. These new designs include things like stickers or paper which can react to where they are located and react accordingly.
Imagine buildings that indicate how they are stressed and to what level because they have chips embedded in the concrete that power themselves through thermal differences in the walls. They could be so much safer and eventually they could even help workers figure out how to repair buildings far in advance of any damage.
This type of application is very much a precursor to nanotechnology, which is five or ten years out. Small, cheap, self-powered and disposable chips can be inserted into almost anything, and could help drive advances in implantable health monitors as well as non-invasive cures for many ailments.
Embedded chemotherapy treatment of cancer with time-released, variable and highly targeted drugs would be possible as well as monitoring of organs from inside the body without any cuts or surgery. Chips are so small and dependable that they will soon be able to function in the tough environment of the human body with complete reliability.
Another area that will be revolutionized by deeply embedded devices will be security. Biometric scanners will make obsolete combination locks, keys, dial safes and even passwords. Door locks, garage doors, cars, computers, safes, bank accounts, email, phones and everything else that requires us to keep a lock box full of passwords written on paper or a special password keeper on our cell phones will be made obsolete by simple sticker-like widgets that can read a retina or thumbprint and transmit verification over a couple inches.
In addition, automatic doors, escalators, elevators and moving walkways injure and kill hundreds of people a year through inadequate emergency mechanisms. All of these could benefit from tiny strips of intelligent, self-powered devices in their most dangerous zones that can send an emergency message to stop the device upon any of a variety of conditions that could indicate impending tragedy.
Today we are poised for a whole slew of new applications and drastic improvements to existing applications. Advances in chip sizes, packaging technology, non-volatile memory technologies, power consumption and analog integration have enabled designers to go where they have never gone before with the most miniscule, versatile and durable devices.
These advances and the growing demand for a smarter and more secure environment have already led to chips being embedded in all sorts of places that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Places like inside a credit card so that the user can change PINs any time they feel like it by simply passing their fingerprint over a sensor built into the card.
In these three articles, we've looked at three technology trends, which will change the face of the world and improve the lives of nearly everyone in it. In the next two years, we will see innovation at a rate that was unthinkable just 10 years ago.
However, the same could have been said 10 years ago, and look at how many of these innovations came and went unsuccessfully, or still haven't happened yet (I am still waiting for my flying car 1950's science fiction).
What does the future hold? What do you think will happen to embedded electronics? Feel free to leave your reply in the comments, or go out and make it happen! As engineers, we have been training our whole lives to solve problems. If you see one, apply your knowledge and share your thoughts!
Jacob Borgeson is currently a product marketing engineer for microcontrollers at Texas Instruments. He has a special interest in integrating low power functionality with wireless operation in many standard applications; especially biomedical devices. He works with Universities and TI engineers to help enable the best educational environments and next generation products through directed research.