So some time ago within the years 1970 and 1971 a young man by the name Gary Boone in a bid to find a simpler way of meeting customer needs at the company he worked invented what we know today as the Microcontrollers. As you must have guessed, with all new inventions it is usually difficult to see the full potential at the point or era of creation but as has always been the case time has always proven otherwise.
So what did Boone really create and why should you be concerned?
While working at Texas Instruments and engaged in the usual business of making IC chips that could be used in calculators, Gary Boone made a single chip that contained all the components a calculator would need which included the processor, ROM, RAM, I/O peripheral ports amongst other things but excluded the keypad and display of the calculator.
As you may have noticed these components (Processor, RAM, ROM, I/O peripheral ports) are also the basis of our computers including the desktops, laptops and any other computer you know. So you may regard the microcontrollers as mini-mini computers. Sooo mini because they are of the size of ICs, literally ICs, because they are in themselves Integrated Circuits.
But contrary to the computers we know today that are have storage capacities of up to 2 - 10 petabytes and above (that is, approximately 1, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000 bytes, as @samminator has made us understand in his recent post) , the microcontrollers have storage capacities within the range 4 - 32 bits or just as may be needed by the task to be performed.
Also unlike our average computers, microcontrollers are so programmed to perform specific tasks, i.e, you can't use them to run MATLAB, play GAMES or even PHOTO EDIT pictures all at the same time, just as we do with our PCs. Probably because they are small, what did you expect?
Microcontrollers are used in applications involving anything from monitoring to control of a large circuit or system. In summary, they receive INPUT from the peripheral port, in this case,pins, process this input, likely store it and give out its response through its OUTPUT pins. Different microcontrollers give different responses, the major determining factor being its code or program. But you see, a single microcontroller can be used for different purposes, all thanks to the EEPROM. EEPROM which stands for Electrically Erasable Programmable ROM; meaning that you can program, erase and reprogram you microcontroller easily.
As you may have imagined with the Microcontrollers in the picture a lot of individuals, hobbyist and companies saw the potential, and have invested time and efforts into developing new and innovative ways to expand the use of microcontrollers. And today we have the privilege to be a part of the fruit of their labors.
If you've used anything ranging from a car, washing machine, microwave or even been to a filling station to get petrol you have encountered microcontrollers at work and may not have known it. Yes, you heard me right.
In the Microwave, the microcontroller controls the clock, the keypad, the oven settings, the heat control. In the fuel pumps, the microcontrollers control the meter, the pump speed, the gauge. In our cars, the microcontrollers monitor the oxygen in the combustion chamber, regulates the fuel inflow and ignites the spark plug.
One of the more recent applications of microcontrollers is in the medical fields (especially in those large instruments used in the hospitals amongst which include the MRI and CT scanners; where microcontrollers in combination with other sensors are used to scan and produce detailed images of the internal organs in the body. Other applications include blood pressure and heart monitoring devices and so many more, that check health status and signal the available doctors in case of any impending danger.
One application I find very fascinating as an engineering student is the area of robotics. At the core of every robot, you have ever loved is the microcontroller; determining its motion and control in its entirety. Here is a video of a simple robot you can put together using an Arduino microcontroller
The great thing about microcontrollers is that even with all my jibberish, they are not abstract and anyone of you can make use of it. The Arduino Microcontroller board is a good way to go or begin with. The Arduino platform gives you the ability to attach some sensors, program the microcontroller to give different output response with the varying input response.
The area of application of microcontrollers seems endless as a lot of challenges involving control keeps evolving. This is in no way bad news as it indirectly tells us that there is a lot of potential in microcontrollers.
I too have found microcontrollers worth the time and effort, and have actually decided to explore them. I will be working with the Arduino Microcontrollers in particular, and hopefully in the weeks to come I will keep you updated with what I learn and discover. You too can join me as there is room for all in the field of microcontrollers. Hope to see you next time.
Thanks for Reading
- Microcontroller Invention History
- Microcontroller - World's Smallest Computer
- Microcontrollers: Theory and Applications
By Ajay V Deshmukh