What Are Single Board Computers?
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They come with a pre-determined amount of RAM, plus the microprocessor, memory, input/output functions and other features. Although some SBCs do now have them, expansion slots are not usually provided for peripherals, as these additional functions are already contained on the board.
You’ll find SBCs in homes, schools, computer clubs and laboratories, as they offer a cost-effective way to learn coding languages and other useful computing topics like robotics or 3D printing. They’re compact, highly reliable and efficient, so they’re also used in many industrial applications requiring a simple, low-cost yet rugged board. Some of the most important applications for SBCs include military applications, deep sea and space operations, security and surveillance, monitoring and controlling equipment and industrial automation.
SBCs will typically consist of a motherboard, power system, microprocessor, RAM, graphics and sound chips. Built-in connectors are provided for peripherals like monitors, routers, modems, USB devices, keyboards, speakers and mice. You’ll usually store your data on a removable device such as an SD card. The SBC is connected to its applications via a backplane, which provides the physical connections for the data and power. In industry, SBCs are often used in rack systems, so you can rapidly and reliably integrate them into your application.
You can choose an SBC based on its size, the type of sockets it has, minimum and maximum operating temperatures and many other factors. You can use SBCs for applications in challenging environmental conditions and stresses. You can get specialised compact designs that can power embedded applications in confined spaces. It’s a very simple infrastructure design that offers great dependability, so it’s frequently used as an embedded computer controller.
Modern SBCs are getting more powerful and more accessible, so that an entire computer can now fit onto a very small PCB. With newer models, opportunities are increasing for expandability, with different expansion slots. As is typical, their price has dropped over time, while their capabilities have become greater.
You’ll often find SBCs in business applications for security and surveillance. Although you could technically use an SBC to perform some office tasks, this isn’t normal usage, as they tend not to work with most mainstream office software suites. But they are used to great effect in industry, to run basic servers or to control programmable machinery at low cost. In industrial automation and manufacturing, they’re used as the preferred embedded controller in many major production processes.
SBCs play a vital role in many control and monitoring functions, such as process control and control of robotic functions. They’re capable of carrying out most automation tasks and can be specialised for individual applications. In the industrial IoT, SBCs are also used for communication and data traffic between devices. You can acquire, process and analyse data with an SBC in order to improve production quality and efficiency. Also, since they’re self-contained, replacing them is relatively easy.
A high-performance SBC can handle many industry tasks involving data analysis, complex calculations or real-time processing tasks. Some of these demand considerable computing power, including edge computing, auto optical inspection, image recognition, etc. Traditional PLCs can control equipment effectively, but often don’t have enough computing power to support data processing. SBCs can handle these tasks much more efficiently and provide quicker results. If you connect one to a PLC, you’ll add the computing power of the SBC to the standard control functions. This results in a complete automated system that’s capable of every function from control to computation, data acquisition and analysis.
You’ll find many types of SBC on the market these days, mostly of the type designed for backplane connections. They work with various operating architectures, and several manufacturers are producing them. Many different models are available in popular brands like Raspberry Pi, BeagleBone and LattePanda.
Raspberry Pi is probably the best-known SBC manufacturer, and you’ll find them everywhere from labs and academic institutions to industrial applications. They’re cheap and easy to use, and the constant evolution of new models keeps users up to date with technology. Raspberry Pi use is so widespread that most people know how to use them, or can learn quickly if they have any computing experience.
Arduino SBCs are very similar to Raspberry Pi in their small size, low cost and expandability. This is a totally open-source production, both software and hardware, which helps to keep costs low. These are basic machines designed for learners, novelties and simple applications, so they’re not typically used for professional tasks. If you know your stuff, they can offer a cost-effective way to run machinery, but are likely to be incompatible with more mainstream systems.
Intel’s high-performance SBCs make viable substitutes for desktop PCs and can be used professionally in an office or even for gaming. They come with quad-core GPUs and they’ll run on Windows or Linux. You get immediate full connectivity and professional cases, but these aren’t really for hobbyists. The high quality of these SBCs is reflected in the higher price.
Single board computers are often smaller, lighter, more reliable and more power-efficient than comparable desktop computers, because they have fewer components, fewer connectors and very high levels of integration. Since they’re typically used in simple applications, a comparatively low-power device provides a viable means of saving money over the more costly desktop option.
SBCs often come with preset I/O interfaces for particular applications such as networking, wireless communications or audio. That makes them less adaptable, but their simple unchangeable structure also means you’ll get significantly fewer problems that might cause downtime. For this reason, SBCs are the computer of choice for running critical “always on” systems, such as medical imaging systems, traffic light controllers, missile guidance systems, anti-lock braking and automotive stability control systems, as well as many others.