Bluetooth, LTE or Wi-Fi are connectivity standards that have earned the trust of all users, but there are many technologies waiting for their opportunity and today we are going to talk about one that has many possibilities to make a dent thanks to its numerous advantages. It is the ultra-wide band or UWB (‘Ultra-wideband’), a short-range communications technology that uses a large portion of the radio spectrum.
This is an alternative to Bluetooth that twenty years ago had its moment but was overshadowed. Now, with the advance of the interconnection between devices and the rise of the Internet of Things, companies such as Apple, Samsung, Bosch, Sony or Volkswagen are driving it again .
The ultra-wide band is able to offer precise location in exterior and interior at distances of less than 10 centimeters. And it is that unlike the Bluetooth that estimates the distance based on the intensity of the signal, UWB calculates the time in which the signal goes and returns, thus achieving a higher level of precision. This difference may not be noticeable in some cases, but in others such as the pairing of nearby devices can be an important security advantage.
Apple and its U1 chip to improve AirDrop
Apple has not specified the exact characteristics of its implementation of UWB, but it has confirmed its use in the new iPhone 11. At the moment, the only use of the ultra-wide band is found in a modified version of AirDrop, which takes advantage of the improvement in UWB accuracy to detect another nearby iPhone that also has this chip.
According to Apple, its new U1 chip is intended for the use of AirDrop and make it more “directional.” This is the full description that appears on the official website.
“The iPhone 11 Pro is the first smartphone with ultra-wide band for spatial detection. The new Apple U1 chip uses this technology to precisely locate other Apple devices that also have U1 chip. It’s like adding another sensor to the iPhone that allows a lots of new interactions. Without going any further, with the U1 chip and iOS 13, when you point your iPhone at someone else’s, AirDrop prioritizes that device so you can send files faster. And that’s just the beginning. “
Will Apple’s commitment to this technology on AirDrop be limited? It is soon to know. But some services such as Apple Pay, currently based on NFC or indoor mapping could benefit from the ultra-wide band.
How the ultra-wide band works
UWB encompasses those radio technologies that make use of a band greater than 500 MHz. Its first developments date back to the 1950s with the antennas in phase, but it was not until the 1990s and 2000 that it began to reach personal devices. In 2002 it was authorized by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
The use of wider frequencies means that it is also more easily than Bluetooth or Wi-Fi to penetrate walls, but its main feature is that it works by measuring the time it takes to return the signal. Based on this precise data, the distance of the object is calculated with an accuracy up to 10 times better than Bluetooth.
While Bluetooth has an approximate level of one meter, the ultra-wide band generally offers an accuracy of about 10 centimeters. UWB is also directional, so it allows to know not only the distance, but also the direction where the signal is located with an accuracy of about 3 degrees.
The technology allows wireless transmission speeds ranging from 110 Mbps in 10 meters, 480 Mbps to one meter and up to 1.6Gbps over shorter distances. UWB also allows you to send data on mobile devices. Speeds of up to 27Mbps have been detected, which generally means a speed greater than Bluetooth but less than Wi-Fi.
UWB generates few radio interference and is very energy efficient, and a transmitter can operate for years with a small button battery.
With an ultra-wide band tag attached to a small accessory such as some keys we could, in case of having a UWB compatible device, know the distance it is, its elevation and its position on a map with an accuracy of 10 centimeters . An accuracy that can make the difference between cheating or not a device with electronic keys that work by proximity , such as cars.
Promoting its use from alliances and consortia
In mid-August 2019, the FiRa Consortium (‘fine ranging’) was established, a group focused on the creation of an IEEE 802.15.4 / 4z standard for short-range telecommunications based on UWB technology. Among its founders we find HID Global, NXP Semiconductors, Samsung Electronics and Bosch and already has the support of other companies such as Sony Imaging Products and LitePoint.
It is not the only alliance created around the ultra-wide band, as we find the UWB Alliance with members such as Kia Motors, Decawave, Hyundai or iRobot and its objective also involves promoting the use of the ultra-wide band. According to Insider Pro, Tim Harrington, director of the UWB Alliance explains that Apple’s decision to support this standard may be a “key change,” commenting that the increase in interest would already be noticed.
NXP, one of the FiRa Consortium members, presented this week the first chip that encompasses the use of ultra-wideband, NFC technology and a secure cryptographic processor. The SR100T, name of the chipset, capable of offering 360º location and an accuracy of 10 centimeters.
The car industry is also set at the UWB
The ultra-wide band is already used in some sectors. The NFL uses it to locate players during matches and multiple companies take advantage of it for the management and monitoring of merchandise in the warehouse. Recently the car industry is also starting to pay attention to it as a possible future bet for the synchronization of the keys with the car.
NXP Semiconductors and Volkswagen have shown the first car concept using ultra-wideband technology, explaining that one of the biggest benefits is safety and the ability to fight thieves who want to break the opening system of the most modern cars.
Lars Reger, NXP CTO, explained the advantages to EE Times just before the Frankfurt Motor Show 2019: “The car can measure exactly the travel time of a signal between the key and the car with UWB, and therefore determine what so far away For example, if the key is actually in a nearby building and someone is using a relay device to connect the signal between the key and the car in order to access the car, since the measurement indicates the true and precise location of the key, the car will recognize that the key is not close and will not allow it to open.”
To which he added bluntly; “We believe that UWB is the only technology that can protect the car against theft. The precision spatial context is the key feature. And this next safety milestone will be implemented in large numbers of Volkswagen car models starting this year.”