What Are Embedded Systems (+ How to Work with Them)

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Explore the role of embedded systems and embedded systems engineers with the following article.

[Featured Image] An embedded systems engineer shows his colleagues a monitor connected to a larger electronic system.

What are embedded systems?

Embedded systems are computer systems that have a dedicated function. They are “embedded” because they exist within a larger mechanical or electronic system. There are four types of embedded systems:

  1. Standalone embedded systems. Operating within a larger system is a key characteristic of embedded systems, but the standalone variety can function independently. Standalone embedded systems can produce outputs without a host computer. 

  2. Network embedded systems. Network embedded systems are also referred to as networked embedded systems. They rely on communication with web servers through wired or wireless networks to operate.  

  3. Mobile embedded systems. Mobile embedded systems are small, portable devices. All mobile embedded systems are also standalone embedded systems. However, not all standalone embedded systems are mobile embedded systems. 

  4. Real-time embedded systems. Output generation speed is the crucial component of real-time embedded systems. In other words, their primary function is to provide results immediately. 

Embedded systems examples

Standalone embedded systemsNetwork embedded systemsMobile embedded systemsReal-time embedded systems
Digital cameras

Digital watches

Temperature measurement systems

Washing machines
Home security systems

Point of sale (POS) systems

Automated teller machines (ATMs)
Cell phones

Laptops

Tablets

Smartwatches
Self-driving vehicle controls

Aircraft control systems

Medical devices and patient monitoring systems

Characteristics of embedded systems

Embedded systems vary significantly in complexity. One thing that they all have in common is that they are task-specific. The following bulleted list outlines a few more shared characteristics of embedded systems.

  • Microprocessor based or microcontroller based. Both microprocessors and microcontrollers are integrated circuits. They provide embedded systems with computational power.

  • Frequently used for internet of things (IoT) devices. The IoT refers to a network of devices that can communicate with each other without human assistance, such as a home security system. Embedded systems support real-time computing and sensing in the IoT. 

  • Time-sensitive function execution. Embedded systems are often required to execute their intended function within a specific time frame to keep the larger system running properly. 

Read more: What is the Internet of Things (IoT)? With Examples

The three main components of embedded systems

Embedded systems have three primary components:

  1. Hardware

  2. Application-specific software

  3. A real-time operating system (RTOS) 

Working with embedded systems

If you want to pursue a career in embedded systems development, you can become an embedded systems engineer. Engineering careers belong to the occupational field of architecture and engineering. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 6 percent job growth in this category between 2020 and 2030. This figure translates into approximately 146,000 new jobs [1].

Embedded systems engineer job description

An embedded systems engineer is responsible for designing, developing, and managing embedded systems in products. They work collaboratively with developers and provide technical assistance to clients and other departments. Embedded systems engineers also create and maintain documentation of projects and procedures. 

Embedded systems engineer salary

The average salary for an embedded systems engineer in the US is $98,059 per year, according to Glassdoor. Embedded systems engineers also report an additional average annual pay of $15,882. Additional pay may represent profit-sharing, bonuses, or commissions. These figures combined equal a total estimated yearly compensation in the US of $113,941 [2].

How to become an embedded systems engineer

Sixty-eight percent of embedded systems engineers obtain bachelor’s degrees, 26 percent have a master’s degree, 3 percent have an associate degree, and 2 percent earn a doctorate level degree [3]. Embedded systems engineers usually study electrical engineering, computer science, or a related field. Examples of degrees aspiring embedded systems engineers pursue include a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering

Gain the essential skills.

Embedded systems engineers possess a combination of technical and workplace skills. First, the list below outlines essential workplace skills. Then, the following sections sort technical skills into two categories—programming and design. Consider using the checklists below to identify areas of focus for your study. 

  • Written and verbal communication

  • Problem solving

  • Project management skills

  • Creativity

  • Logic

  • Patience 

Embedded systems programming

  • C and C++ programming languages

  • Experience working with RTOS

  • Familiarity with device drivers like Linux

  • Remote and local debugging capabilities

  • Extensive experience working with hardware and software

You can gain embedded systems programming skills with a certificate in an online course like the University of Colorado Boulder’s Introduction to Embedded Systems Software and Development Environments.

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Introduction to Embedded Systems Software and Development Environments

Welcome to the Introduction to Embedded Systems Software and Development Environments. This course is focused on giving you real world coding experience and ...

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(533 ratings)

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Average time: 1 month(s)

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Skills you'll build:

Makefile, C Programming, Embedded C

Embedded systems design

Build your design skill set by earning a UX and Interface Design for Embedded Systems certificate from the University of Colorado Boulder.

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UX and Interface Design for Embedded Systems

This course can also be taken for academic credit as ECEA 5346, part of CU Boulder’s Master of Science in Electrical Engineering degree. UX and Interface ...

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Average time: 1 month(s)

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UX and user research, UX and UI design, UX verification and validation, Project planning and analysis

Enhance your resume.

Building a strong resume is an essential step for any job seeker. You can enhance your resume in several ways, including creating a portfolio. A portfolio is a collection of your best work to share with potential employers. If you have not yet worked on an independent project that you can use for your portfolio, consider enrolling in a Guided Project. For example, the University of Colorado Boulder offers an online Real-Time Project for Embedded Systems. You can read 10 more ways to enhance your resume in the article below.

Read more: 10 Ways to Enhance Your Resume 

Learn more about embedded systems with Coursera.

Want to keep learning about embedded systems and embedded systems development? Consider earning a certificate from an online specialization like Introduction to the Internet of Things and Embedded Systems.

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Introduction to the Internet of Things and Embedded Systems

The explosive growth of the “Internet of Things” is changing our world and the rapid drop in price for typical IoT components is allowing people to innovate ...

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(12,467 ratings)

284,967 already enrolled

Average time: 1 month(s)

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Skills you'll build:

Internet Of Things (IOT), Microcontroller, Embedded System Design, Wireshark

Related articles

Article sources

1. US  Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Outlook Handbook: Architects and Engineers, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/home.htm.” Accessed July 22, 2022. 

2. Glassdoor. “How much does an embedded systems engineer make? https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/embedded-systems-engineer-salary-SRCH_KO0,25.htm.” Accessed July 22, 2022. 

3. Zippia. “Embedded engineer education requirements, https://www.zippia.com/embedded-engineer-jobs/education/.” Accessed July 22, 2022. 

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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