Elegant Embedded Designs Emerged In 2012

One of the fun aspects of being an editor at Electronic Design is seeing all the neat applications for embedded electronics and software. We try to get as many into print and online as possible, but it is tough because there are so many. To wrap up this year I wanted to highlight a few that I had a chance to see.

Home design elegance

Nest’s Learning Thermostat is designed for any home (see “An Elegant Thermostat Designed For The Internet”). It has a simple, mechanical interface. The body rotates, and it’s a giant button (Fig. 1). The center is a color LCD.

1. Based on Wi-Fi, Nest’s Learning Thermostat tracks your preferences to adjust the temperature instead of requiring a fixed schedule. It can significantly reduce heating and cooling costs over a season.

If the temperature isn’t what you like, simply turn the device and watch the desired temperature change. The software remembers your preferences over days and weeks and adjusts accordingly.

A Texas Instruments Sitara AM37x microcontroller with a Wi-Fi link to the Internet enables remote management using smart-phone or tablet apps. Multiple-zone homes like mine have multiple devices linked via Wi-Fi. It’s simple to install and simple to use.

Robots that behave

Rethink Robotics has a $22,000 robot called Baxter designed for assembly lines (Fig. 2). Unlike most robots used in pick-and-place applications, Baxter is people-friendly in its of operation as well as its programming (see “Robobusiness Is Back And Better Than Ever”).

2. The Baxter behavior-based robot from Rethink Robotics is easy to program and can coexist with people on an assembly line.

Baxter uses counterbalanced arms, so they don’t have to be driven as hard as conventional robotic arms. As a result, they can easily stop when they bump into someone.

The robot also features behavior-based programming. It comes preprogrammed with behaviors that prevent its arms from colliding and hitting people. It also handles example-based programming. If you need to move an item from point A to point B, then move Baxter’s arm and hand appropriately, and it can repeat the process forever.

Smart phones on the water

Designing and deploying a smart phone is a complex and costly process. But many embedded applications need the features found in an off-the-shelf smart phone, so why not just use one inside a robot instead of building a custom system?

At Carnegie Mellon University’s (CMU) Robotics Institute, students put a smart phone inside a waterproof case that controls an air boat designed to operate in swarms (see “Applications Of The Platypus Cooperative Robotic Watercrafts”). Platypus LLC, a spinoff of CMU’s Robotics Institute, is using these air boats to monitor waterways for everything from temperature to chemical spills (Fig. 3).

3. Platypus LLC, a spinoff of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, has a robotic airboat that’s managed using a smart phone.

The tiny floating robots take advantage of the peripherals in the smart phone, including the GPS and accelerometers. The phone support provides long-distance communication, while Wi-Fi can be used for local swarms. Bluetooth is used to communicate with the on-board Arduino system that controls movement and data acquisition. The smart-phone camera provides snapshots or streaming video.

The trend of using smart phones and tablets is growing. Even telepresence robots are using tablets with built-in cameras to provide the eyes, ears, and feedback mechanism.

So, what elegant products did you see this year?