Embedded control is a subgroup of the overall data acquisition and control market. The I/O system is not connected to an external PC. The processor runs the system or the PC, which is incorporated into the I/O chassis itself, is the differentiating feature of an embedded system. One hosted DAQ system is usually introduced by some type of general purpose PC with a keyboard, monitor or some other human interface apparatus. However, an Embedded Control system’s processor is normally designed specifically to control and monitor the system and often does not provide the direct connection to a monitor or any other human interface at all.
Still, the hardware differences between a standard PC and an embedded controller are evident. The differences in software are usually significant as well. Large operating systems (in terms of memory and disk space requirements) such as MAC OS X and Windows XP are the ones most PCs are based on, while the typical embedded system is more likely to be based on a smaller operating system developed to provide a simple and powerful GUI human interface. Nowadays, people are much more likely to work on operating systems such as Windows CE or Linux. Further, as many of these systems are in control of high speed or timing critical operations, people are much more likely to work on an embedded control DAQ system based on a real-time operating system such as RTX, QNX or Linux.
There is almost always some link to the outside world, even though the embedded control CPU is quite likely to run individually on any supervisory controller. Generally, it can be as complex as letting the supervisory computer take entire control any time the communication’s link between the two systems is active, but this may also be as limited as providing a simple “OK” or “not OK” situation. Usually, it is somewhere in between the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) where computer looks over system status and provides a link that allows a human operator to manage the system’s operation, or gives some direction (e.g. set points or PID control loop adjustments).
It is important to indicate that the heart of an industrial control system or a process control application is often some embedded controller. It should be at the center of a remote controller (that allows an application to keep running even if its significant link to the outside world is cut) or portable data acquisition system.