Developing with Microcontrollers

Microcontrollers are Reshaping Development 

By Stephanie Van Ness

Microcontrollers, often referred to as MCUs, are transforming our lives. Perhaps you haven't noticed since the mobile revolution initiated with the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 gets all the attention. And rightly so. By putting a supercomputer in everyone's pocket, Apple without question altered society.

But that's old news. Today, transformation is all about the "smart" revolution. And microcontrollers are playing a leading role. By 2023, according to Cisco AIR, there will be nearly 30 billion connected devices in a world with a global population of 8 billion.

To help you explore the potential of microcontrollers, we're generating a variety of new technical content, including webinars, eBooks and this blog series. We'll cover everything from Qt for MCUs to a detailed reference illustrating supported NXP and STM-supported platforms to How to install Qt for MCU Demos Using NXP MCUXpresso.

About Microcontrollers

A stand-alone mini SOC (system-on-a-chip) that incorporates everything needed to run, a microcontroller also usually includes flash memory for code or application storage along with a limited amount of RAM — just enough to execute. Power it up, connect some sensors or things to control, load the program and go. Since microcontrollers grew from the embedded computing space, they have a lot of General Purpose Input/Output (GPIO) to control hardware peripherals.

With microcontrollers and ubiquitous sensors you can easily control everything from your refrigerator to your thermostat. Even products that once seemed unlikely partners for digital technology — the mattress you sleep on, the toy your toddler plays with, the jacket you grab when the temperatures turn brisk — have become part of the IoT revolution thanks to microcontrollers. Already, it's difficult to find a new product that doesn't include some kind of IoT connection (or companion mobile app). If you're buying a brand-new vehicle, it's simply impossible. Every new automobile, SUV and truck incorporates at least 30 microcontrollers — and "better-appointed" cars can have more than 100. By 2023 70% of all road-worthy vehicles will be connected to the internet.

Though microcontrollers have been around for at least four decades, until just a few years ago the closest we at ICS got to one was the typical ARM processor with a memory management system. It had lots of memory and it ran Linux. But thanks to the rise of the IoT and the availability of more complex microcontrollers, today almost 25% of the devices ICS develops include at least one microcontroller in the system and most incorporate several.

Though microcontrollers aren't new, what's changed is the added power and cost-effectiveness offered by today's generation of microcontrollers. They can run far more sophisticated applications, support gateway connectivity (e.g. Ethernet, WiFi) and machine vision, and deliver greater functionality at a more attractive price point than many legacy technologies. And their price is attractive. At production quantities, 32-bit microcontrollers can cost as little as a dollar each. In contrast, traditional A7 chips generally cost about $25 and many exceed $35.

The "It" Technology of the IoT Era

Microcontrollers represent an exciting area that is already transforming device creation for consumer goods, industrial automation, infrastructure and more. As the future grows tiny, microcontrollers will increasingly reshape how we interact with the world around us as forthcoming generations will include AI, facial recognition, biometrics and much more.

For more on this powerful tech, don't miss the rest of our series The Smart Revolution: Developing with Microcontrollers. In our next installment, we'll explore key areas around which you'll have to make important decisions when creating a device incorporating microcontrollers, including hardware, display, software development environment, and RTOS.

Thinking about how microcontrollers fit into your device strategy? Get in touch. We'll connect you with a member of our engineering MCU Interest Group and together you can delve into specifics. Contact us.