Ruggedization of embedded systems opens options for Java developers

Ruggedization is making embedded hardware less delicate, which in turn is making room for Java developers to build better embedded software.

Ruggedized embedded systems take computing everywhere

Embedded technology is, by design, supposed to be resistant to failure. Some of the first embedded devices were developed for use in NASA spacecraft. But today’s systems have to be able to cope with even tougher conditions and keep right on rolling with the 1s and 0s. These ruggedized embedded systems are particularly popular with the military. You can find them on aircraft, submarines, tanks, Special Forces laptops, and guided missiles.

What’s so tough about these devices?

Embedded devices come in many levels of ruggedization. The environment in which the device will be deployed dictates exactly which features are most critical for a given application. Here are various capabilities you can get with the some of the most rugged chips from a major manufacturer like Tekmicro:

  • Operational capability at ranges from -400C to +850C
  • Resistance to condensation even in high humidity conditions
  • Conformal coating to protect against temperature fluctuation, moisture, dust, and chemicals
  • A structure that can withstand sharp shocks and strong vibrations

Beyond the physical characteristics listed above, a rugged embedded device typically works just like a standard device. It has the same circuitry and layered software. This means the firmware itself isn’t necessarily less prone to failure or hacking than a non-ruggedized embedded system. That layer of protection has to be designed into the software side of things.

Civilian applications for ruggedized embedded systems

One of the most important uses for these tougher than nails devices is in research and development. All those neat experiments being done in a super-cooled laboratory environment aren’t being carried out with a slide rule and a pencil. Researchers need microcontrollers that can continue functioning and recording data in situations that would freeze or fry a standard embedded system.

In the public service sphere, embedded devices are lifesavers for EMS, Police, Coast Guard, and Fire Departments. They are also vital for humanitarian work in disaster zones – especially in remote regions where losing mobile computing capability could effectively shut down a rescue mission.

Commercial customers are also eager for hardier components. Industrial applications (such as heavy construction equipment), logistics, and manufacturing are all areas where ruggedization can cut maintenance costs and increase reliability. Even a white collar business environment can benefit from fanless embedded components that can be used in a thin server to trim the costs for operating a network.

What might the rugged future look like?

As what was once the most delicate part of a computing system becomes the most resistant to damage, we’re likely to start seeing demand among everyday consumers. Who wouldn’t want a laptop that’s impervious to being dropped on the sidewalk or a cell phone that could withstand a quick dunk in the toilet (and subsequent sanitization)? Sure, planned obsolescence will still be a major problem for most of our tech toys. But there’s no reason that ruggedized embedded systems can’t become the norm – at least for higher end consumer goods. Once this tech really hits the mainstream, it might not cost any more than that extended warranty the guy at the checkout always tries to sell you.

Is Embedded Tech Available Right Now?

You can find products like the Durabook laptop being sold directly to the public for less than $1200. Panasonic’s Toughbook is a little pricier at $2500 and HP’s Rugged Notebook comes in at around $3800. Military grade ultra-rugged laptops are pricier, but they come with additional features. These bad boys can withstand a high altitude electromagnetic pulse (that blast of energy that knocks out normal electronics when a nuclear bomb explodes). Your friends are sure to be jealous when you’re the only one who can post status updates to FaceBook after the apocalypse, so the $5000+ price tag is definitely worth it!

This was last published in September 2011

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