In the fast-growing world of the Internet of Things (IoT), microcontrollers play a crucial role in enabling connectivity and control. The most popular choices for such applications are versatile and powerful microcontrollers developed by Espressif Systems, including the ESP32 and ESP8266 series.
They gained immense popularity in the world of embedded electronics and IoT due to their remarkable capabilities. These powerful yet affordable devices offer built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities, making them ideal for a wide range of IoT applications.
This blog post will explain why these MCUs are so popular by describing some of their features and providing a few examples of the standard applications in which they are used. Whether you’re a hobbyist or a full-time developer, the ESP opens a world of possibilities for your electronic projects.
Espressif Systems is a Chinese semiconductor company, founded in Shanghai, China, in 2008. Their initial focus was on developing low-power Wi-Fi solutions for embedded systems.
In 2014, Espressif introduced the ESP8266, a highly integrated and low-cost Wi-Fi module. The module gained significant attention in the embedded world, thanks to its capabilities for such an affordable price. It quickly became the go-to platform for many IoT and DIY projects.
In 2016, Espressif launched the ESP32 – a more powerful microcontroller than its predecessor. It features both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities why it became even more popular than the ESP8266. After that, Espressif released a few more chip series, including ESP32-S (ESP32-S2 and ESP32-S3) series, ESP32-C (ESP32-C2, ESP32-C3 and ESP32-C6) series and ESP32-H (ESP32-H2) series.
Espressif systems products became available in the form of SoCs (System on a chip), modules, and development boards. They even made the ESP Product Selector, an online tool to help users choose the right product for their specific needs. It offers a series of filters to narrow down the available options based on the user’s requirements.
The ESP32 Series of microcontrollers is the most popular among its siblings. They boast an extensive range of features:
- Dual-Core Processor: The ESP32 features two high-performance Tensilica LX6 CPU cores, which can be individually controlled for better multitasking and improved performance.
- Wireless Connectivity: It includes built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, supporting both classic Bluetooth and BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) for seamless wireless communication.
- Low-Power Modes: The ESP32 offers various low-power modes, making it energy-efficient for battery-operated devices. It can operate in deep sleep mode, consuming minimal power when idle.
- Rich Peripherals: The microcontroller comes equipped with a wide range of peripherals, including SPI, I2C, UART, GPIO pins, PWM, and more, allowing you to interface with various sensors and devices.
- Analog-to-Digital Conversion (ADC): It has a 12-bit ADC that enables accurate analog sensor readings for applications like data acquisition and sensor monitoring.
- Secure Boot and Flash Encryption: The ESP32 provides security features such as secure boot and flash encryption to protect your firmware and data from unauthorized access.
- Support for Various Protocols: It supports a variety of communication protocols, including MQTT, CoAP, and HTTP, making it ideal for IoT applications.
- Extensive Memory: With both program and data memory available, the ESP32 can handle a wide range of applications and larger programs.
- RTOS Support: The ESP32 can run a real-time operating system (RTOS), making it suitable for more complex, multi-threaded applications.
- OTA (Over-The-Air) Updates: It supports OTA firmware updates, allowing you to update your devices remotely, which is essential for IoT and remote deployments.
- Bluetooth Audio and Classic Bluetooth: The ESP32 can be used for audio streaming applications and supports classic Bluetooth for connecting to a wide range of devices.
- Rich Development Ecosystem: The ESP32 has a large and active community of developers, extensive documentation, and various development tools and frameworks like the ESP-IDF (Espressif IoT Development Framework),
- Cost-Effective: The ESP32 is cost-effective, making it accessible to hobbyists and professionals alike.
Development tools and frameworks
ESP-IDF (Espressif IoT Development Framework) is the official software development framework for Espressif’s series of microcontrollers. It provides a comprehensive set of libraries, tools, and documentation for developing applications on these chips.
ESP-IDF is designed to make it easier for developers to harness the full potential of the ESP32 microcontroller and build a wide range of IoT and embedded applications.
There are several other development frameworks besides ESP-IDF.
- Arduino IDE is a beginner-friendly integrated development environment that simplifies the programming of ESP32 using the Arduino programming language.
- PlatformIO is a cross-platform ecosystem that supports ESP32 development and provides a unified interface for code editing, debugging, and project management.
- Micropython is an implementation of the Python programming language optimized for microcontrollers, allowing developers to write code directly on the ESP32.
ESP32 supports multiple cloud frameworks using agents built on top of ESP-IDF.
- ESP RainMaker is a lightweight AIoT Cloud software, integrated into AWS serverless architecture, which allows customers to build, develop and deploy customized AIoT solutions with a minimum amount of code and maximum security.
- AWS IoT is an open-source repository for ESP32, based on Amazon Web Services SDK.
- Azure IoT is an open-source repository for ESP32, based on Microsoft Azure SDK.
- Google IoT Core is an open-source repository for ESP32, based on Google SDK.
Espressif developed a collection of their own official libraries and frameworks.
- ESP-ADF is a Espressif’s Audio Development Framework for audio applications, including CODEC’s HAL, music player and recorders, audio processing, Bluetooth speakers, internet radios, hands-free devices and speech recognition.
- ESP-DSP is a Espressif’s library that provides algorithms optimized specifically for digital signal processing applications. It supports matrix multiplication, dot product, FFT, IIR, FIR and vector math operations.
- ESP-IDF-CXX is a wrapper library for C++. The focuses are on ease of use, safety and automatic resource management. There are C++ classes for ESP-Timer, I2C, SPI, GPIO and other peripherals or features of ESP-IDF.
Here are some common IoT applications where the ESP32 can be employed:
- Smart Home Devices: IoT devices like smart bulbs, plugs, and switches that can be controlled remotely using a smartphone or voice commands.
Sensors for monitoring air quality, temperature and humidity
- Wearable Technology:
Wearable fitness trackers that monitor steps, heart rate, and other health metrics.
- Environmental Monitoring:
Weather stations that collect and transmit weather data, including temperature, humidity and atmospheric pressure.
- Asset Tracking and Monitoring:
GPS trackers for monitoring the location of vehicles, packages, or assets.
- Industrial Automation:
Industrial IoT solutions for monitoring and controlling machinery, production processes, and energy consumption.
- Smart Agriculture:
Soil moisture and temperature sensors for precision agriculture.
- Energy Management:
Energy consumption monitoring systems for homes and businesses.
Renewable energy systems, that can be monitored and controlled remotely.
- Security and Surveillance:
IoT cameras and sensors for monitoring homes, businesses, and public areas.
- Smart Cities:
Traffic management systems for optimizing traffic flow and reducing congestion.
In the modern days, security has gained a lot of popularity in the IoT development, reflecting the increasing awareness of the need to protect interconnected devices and data. ESP32 covers a few security measures.
- Secure boot is a mechanism to prevent unauthorized firmware from being loaded onto the device.
- Flash encryption is safeguard to the data stored in flash memory.
- Industry-standard encryption and authentication are algorithms and protocols for securing data transmission between the ESP32 and other devices or cloud services.
- Firmware updates are protecting security vulnerabilities with the latest security enhancements.
So, why would you choose the ESP32?
There are thousands of different types of microcontrollers on the market today. Choosing the right microcontroller can be hard, especially if you don’t have much experience. Detailed explanation on how to choose a microcontroller and what should you keep in mind is provided in our other blog post: How to Choose a Microcontroller for Your Next Project.
So, why is the ESP32 standing out? There are four key differentiators between the ESP32 chip and its competitors.
The first one is connectivity. The ESP32’s built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities give it an advantage over microcontrollers that require additional modules or external components for wireless connectivity.
The second one is processing power. With its dual-core processor, the ESP32 can handle more complex tasks and support multitasking, making it suitable for demanding IoT applications.
The third one is cost. The ESP32 offers an excellent balance of features and affordability, making it a cost-effective choice for both hobbyists and commercial projects.
And last, but not least, support (community). The ESP32 has a thriving community of developers and enthusiasts, resulting in extensive documentation, tutorials, and support resources.
Let the numbers speak for themselves. Espressif Systems announced in September of 2023 that their cumulative chip shipments had exceeded one billion across the world since the launch of the first ESP8266 chip in 2014. “With its cutting-edge technology and unwavering commitment to top-notch product performance, Espressif has earned the trust of millions of users worldwide, which has consequently solidified its top market position in the field of IoT wireless connectivity chips.”
This is a very important milestone for any semiconductor company. Espressif Systems’ customer performance is outstanding. In fact, we sold almost 200 million chips in the past year alone, and we expect to achieve the next billion sales in three years’ time approximately. This highlights the effectiveness of our developer-focused approach, which goes hand-in-hand with the easy access and wide-ranging support we provide to our users.
Teo Swee Ann
Founder and CEO of Espressif Systems