Embedded Linux: Out of sight, out of mind


Inspiration for this post came to me whilst dead-heading the roses the other evening. Across the way on the village green three boys were playing Daleks. They were in a world of their own.

There was lots of exterminating going on, naturally, but I was struck by the cries of an evidently wounded Dalek "systems failure!, systems failure!..reboot! rebooooot!!". Obviously the Daleks were running on some version of embedded Windows. I was intrigued, how common is this in aliens?

A quick Google showed no info on the Tardis' OS but did hint that Capt James T Kirk's Enterprise was probably running on a legacy Windows 7.99b as indicated by frequent 'initiate destruct sequence' commands following shield failure. No information on Light Sabers, though the Theoretical Physics dept at Swansea Uni are working on them.. and they use Debian Linux.

Enough, whilst embedded Windows is confined to largely the fictional domain, embedded Linux is everywhere, out of sight out of mind, it is evolving and reproducing at some pace. This post is about the sheer ubiquity of embedded Linux but it is also about branding.

Anonymity and Branding

Embedded Linux devices fall into two categories:

  1. Where the Linux OS is anonymous simply because it has been used by engineers as part of the tool set. For example branding of a flight data recorder would be weak. The buyers in a specialist market would buy based on specificaton, price and their own professional evaluation.
  2. Where the Linux OS can do its job but not intrude on the heavy branding of its host device. For example TomTom, Motorola, Palm and Sony would have good market reasons not to compete with Microsoft branding. The don't wan't or need any interference from 'Microsoft Inside' stickers.

So what follows this section it is just a list really, thinly disguised by a theme! Apologies, you may know it all already, but hopefully some sections will be as news to you as they were to me. Even with some kind of theme there were still eleven categories. Skip the bits you are familiar with.

Outer Space Robot Linux (robot landers)

First up, NASA's Mars Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity are still beavering away on the surface of another planet. In fact they have had their Linux kernels updated three times because their predicted service life of three months now runs into years... so reliable, so Linux. NASA, Rover's ground control, by the way also uses Linux too. The next Rover models will use a combo of Linux and Java.


Linux in the Air (back box, multimedia, air traffic control, diagnostics)

Second, in aeronautics we find good use made of Carrier Grade 5 embedded Linux systems in avionics and common in black-box flight recorders. Monta Vista Linux is the most commercial producer of such products and is part of the Euro Air Traffic control (AB Systems Sweden Monta Vista), elsewhere, in Germany, Air Traffic control uses Suse Linux.

Boeing also picks Linux for C-17 avionics test equipment and the RedHawk Linux operating system has been selected by Boeing for use in Symtx avionics test equipment.

Find Your way with Linux (sat nav GIS)

Landing with thump, but still looking up is the most popular of embedded Linux systems, the TomTom satellite navigation system. It uses the Linux 2.6 kernel and has support for ARM-Risc, just like the Mars Rovers and, I am told, Cruise Missiles (actually they probably use VxWorks but, hey).

Linux in Town (traffic lights, POS, Routers)