A microcontroller is a compact integrated circuit designed to govern a specific electronic operation; essentially simple miniature personal computers (PCs) designed to control small features of a larger component, without a complex front-end operating system (OS). A typical microcontroller includes a processor, memory and input/output (I/O) peripherals on a single chip.
How do Microcontrollers Work?
A microcontroller is embedded inside of a system to control a singular function in a device. It does this by interpreting data it receives from its I/O peripherals using its central processor. The temporary information that the microcontroller receives is stored in its data memory, where the processor accesses it and uses instructions stored in its program memory to decipher and apply the incoming data. It then uses its I/O peripherals to communicate and enact the appropriate action.
Microcontrollers are used in a wide array of systems and devices. Devices often utilize multiple microcontrollers that work together within the device to handle their respective tasks. For example, a car might have many microcontrollers that control various individual systems within, such as the anti-lock braking system, traction control, fuel injection or suspension control. All the microcontrollers communicate with each other to inform the correct actions. Some might communicate with a more complex central computer within the car, and others might only communicate with other microcontrollers. They send and receive data using their I/O peripherals and process that data to perform their designated tasks.
Where are Microcontrollers Used?
Used in everything from the simplest lawn watering controller to highly sophisticated satellite systems, the microcontroller has become ubiquitous and invisible. The average U.S. household has about 60 embedded microcontrollers while a standard BMW 7-series has 65 microcontrollers. Although the microcontrollers in PCs are the most visible, they account for just 6% of of the microcontroller market. In your home, microcontrollers are used in microwave ovens, washers and dryers, security systems, lawn sprinkler station controllers, and music/video entertainment components. In the workplace, microcontrollers are used in computer keyboards, monitors, printers, copiers, fax machines, and telephone systems.