Enjoy snapping photos with your cell phone? Using a fob on your keychain to beep your car doors locked and unlocked? Sleeping soundly while a monitoring system checks your home for potential danger and disaster? Embedded systems make such daily conveniences possible, and NC State’s research into these miniature computers is bringing jobs to the state in addition to making life easier for North Carolina residents.
The two-year-old Center for Embedded Systems Research (CESR) in NC State’s College of Engineering is one of just a handful of university research centers nationwide to focus on embedded systems. The tiny computers are embedded as mere components in a larger system to provide better performance or additional features. CESR’s Dr. Alex Dean, an assistant professor of computer engineering, says they are the basic workings of most advanced electronics today, offering designers a nexus between computer chips and software code. “It’s extremely expensive and time-consuming to build systems,” he says. “So all of the complexity has been shifted into the software, which is easier to develop and debug, while one microprocessor satisfies the computing needs.”
The professors and students in CESR’s Centennial Campus offices research challenges like conserving energy in systems that tend to stretch battery and power supply limits and finding the most efficient way to translate advanced software code into simple computer language that a processor can understand. Another area of interest is guaranteeing the timing of all software code and hardware to ensure that a system runs predictablyan especially critical function in embedded systems like automotive airbags and anti-lock brakes. “A system solution isn’t one that merely operates. You have to have something that is cost-effective, can be repaired, fits into the space you have for it, and doesn’t use a lot of energy,” Dean says.
Companies like cell phone maker Qualcomm and semiconductor manufacturer Renesas Technology recognize the pivotal role CESR plays in creating the next generations of electronics. Both companies have established design operations in the Research Triangle area, in part, for the chance to work with CESR researchers and snap up talented NC State graduates. Red Hat, a world leader in open source software development with headquarters on Centennial Campus, has also partnered with the center, bringing more research opportunities and potential jobs. “Most companies want a faster return on their investment than long-term research provides,” Dean says. “But some recognize our work plays a role in how future systems are designed or operate, and building relationships with those people will benefit our students and the region.”