Embedded Systems at the Heart of Green Technology

Embedded software development consultancy, Pebble Bay, has announced that it has been working with Vickers Electronics in the development of a new microprocessor-based control unit for industrial heating systems.

Based on an ARM Cortex™-M3 processor the new design is far more powerful than the existing one it replaces, and has the capacity for significant new capabilities to be added.

Vickers Electronics designs and installs energy management systems that seek to reduce energy wastage by controlling all aspects of time and temperature. The control unit for this system includes an LCD panel and keypad which is used to configure heating zones, set required temperatures and on/off times. The control unit also communicates with outstations in the zones to send commands and receive status information.

The original control unit was becoming costly to manufacture because of component obsolescence and the mixture of different technologies it used; furthermore it did not provide good support for software development and debugging. Vickers engaged Pebble Bay to undertake a complete re-design of the hardware and a software port to provide a new control unit on which their existing application software would run. The new design was to be based on up-to-the-minute technology with ease of development and manufacture in mind, while allowing a range of new hardware and software capabilities to be added easily in future. It was also required to be fully compatible with the outstations – using the exact same communication technologies and protocols – so that it could be a drop-in replacement for the existing unit.

Pebble Bay worked with their hardware design partner Hitex Design UK to evaluate several options for the microcontroller at the heart of the new control unit. Hitex then designed the hardware, with contributions from Pebble Bay, and produced several prototypes which were used to complete the software development. Pebble Bay managed the project and carried out all the software development which made it possible to run Vickers’ application software on the new design.

“Central to the design is the microcontroller which has an ideal combination of features for Vickers’ application.” said Ian Willats, Managing Director at Pebble Bay. “The ARM Cortex™-M3 core gives good performance and is supported by a wide range of development tools, while the on-chip peripherals minimize the cost and complexity of external devices. The new hardware design will be much easier to develop software for, and incorporates several significant enhancements such as a colour graphical LCD, USB connection to an engineer’s PC and the ability to update the firmware at customer sites.  It also supports additional interfaces such as Ethernet and USB on-the-go which may be useful for future applications.”

In addition to the hardware, the Pebble Bay team provided software development services in order to provide a final working platform.

“As a part of the project we reviewed almost all the existing software for the control unit and clarified the boundaries between hardware-specific code and the application program, helping to improve the software architecture,” said Steve Langstaff, Senior Software Engineer. “This should serve Vickers well in the future, helping to create a robust platform that can be efficiently developed and debugged.”

An important aspect of the project was that the new design needed to be ready for Vickers to put into production by a specific date to ensure continuity of supply of the control units. The hardware and software design were actually delivered ahead of schedule, which is a testament both to Pebble Bay’s project management and the strength of the partnership with Hitex. “It was a pleasure to flash the new software build and see Vickers’ application program running successfully within less than an hour of unpacking the prototype hardware” said Steve.

UK-based Pebble Bay is a business that helps companies build and improve all kinds of products based on microprocessors. Since the company’s launch five years ago, Pebble Bay has become a respected leader in the development of board support packages and hardware-software interfacing, working with companies around the world. With extensive knowledge and experience of a broad range of RTOS’s, Linux and Windows based OS’s and a thorough understanding of microprocessor-based hardware, the Pebble Bay team has become a valuable resource to the worldwide embedded systems industry.

“We are very pleased with the solution that Pebble Bay has delivered,” said Steve Murray, Technical Director at Vickers Electronics.  “The team at Pebble Bay has a lot of expertise, very good communication and good systems in place, making the successful subcontracting of this design project assured from the start.”