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Ask the Expert: Embedded Systems

It is always our aim to showcase and share the remarkable expertise and industry knowledge of those around us. Today, we’d like to feature an expert on the topic of the ever-changing world of Embedded Systems.

In this context, we caught up with Liam Wickins, Engineering Director at Icoteq. We asked Liam for some practical insights on embedded systems in a business context specifically.

Here, our chat as part of our ‘Ask the Expert’ series.

ADLIB: Let’s start with “why” from your perspective. Why are embedded systems so important?

Liam: For me, embedded systems are about invisibly enhancing the way we live be it in a small or large way. Of course, it goes without saying, that I love learning about and using the vast range of technologies that make up embedded systems but ultimately it is about solving real-world problems as simply as possible.

ADLIB: In your opinion, what key elements have changed within embedded systems over the past 10 years?

Liam: The explosion of system-on-chip has revolutionized the embedded space. A small single device package can now house a mixture of “hard” and “soft” technologies that allow the incredibly feature-dense application to be developed using wireless communications, computer vision, machine learning or indeed all at once.

The exponential increase in the power of these technologies has also made embedded systems not only ubiquitous but also more accessible with a thriving eco-system of portable software frameworks be it operating systems, device drivers, protocol stacks. It is now possible to adopt new technologies and develop interesting applications very quickly — my 13-year-old son learns about embedded microcontrollers and computer programming at school using computers such as the Raspberry Pi and the BBC MicroBit. This simply wasn’t possible 10 years as the ecosystems were simply not mature enough to support it.

ADLIB: From your perspective, how can businesses and individuals stay ahead of the game in the ever-changing world of embedded systems?

Liam: From both a business and individual perspective it is about continuously having the conversations about the problems we need to solve and how technology can be brought to bear upon them.

A really interesting space that I have become involved in recently is Conservation. A real problem in this space is that academics, researchers and institutions want to use technology to collect data that can enhance their understanding of the world, be it the behaviour patterns of endangered species of animal or the flow of plastic pollutants through our rivers and oceans. However, they do not have large budgets to purchase expensive existing commercial technologies. This naturally limits the amount of data they can gather.

Working with academics, researchers and institutions we’ve found interesting ways to use embedded technologies and make them more accessible, more programmable, more flexible and to do so whilst keeping the costs low so that the approach can scale better.

ADLIB: And finally, what do you see as most critical to being successful in the world of embedded systems?

Liam: I think the ability to understand what a customer really wants and to explore this in a manner where the problem to be solved identifies the technology to be used rather than vice-versa is vitally important.
As a technical person, this is sometimes not a natural thought process to engage in but by forcing myself to think this way I have often found more creative solutions to problems.

Thanks so much for sharing!