Ultra Wide Band Technology (UWB): The Upcoming Step in IoT

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Be it our homes, offices, hospitals, manufacturing units, or public places, the internet of things (IoT) has been a disruptive force across the world. With around 10 million IoT-connected devices already on our planet, the number is expected to skyrocket and touch the 25 million mark by 2030.

The proliferation of IoT devices might be staggering, but it is still at its early stages. The companies are constantly pushing for wireless technological advancements and integrations so that IoT reaches its full potential as a technology. Some of the most prominent attempts in the IoT sphere include 5G connectivity, Bluetooth LE, and Wi-Fi 6.

Another wireless technology set to play a key role in the Internet of Things (IoT) is Ultra-Wideband (UWB) technology. Unlike 5G or Wi-Fi 6, it’s not a new-age technology, but it has something unique to offer to the world of the internet of things (IoT). Let’s get under the hood of this technology and see what it’s got.

What is Ultra-Wideband Technology?

Most people first heard about the Ultra-Wideband technology when Apple announced its use at the iPhone 11 launch event in September 2019. To the surprise of many, the technology has been around for decades.

Ultra-Wide Technology Definition: Ultra-wideband is a radio technology that operates on an extremely low energy level to facilitate short-range, high-bandwidth communications over a large portion of the radio spectrum. In simple words, a bandwidth higher than 500 MHz is considered an ultra-wideband signal.

History of Ultra-Wideband Technology● 1970s to the 2000s: Usage of UWB was restricted to military communications. ● 2002: UWB was authorized for commercial use by the USA’s Federal Communications Commission. It opened the gates of data transfer operations on the unlicensed spectrum between 3.1 GHz to 10.6 GHz spectrum. It also got standardized in IEEE 802.15.3.● 2007: UWB got specified as an impulse radio technology used for ranging. ● 2020: It got approved as a standard for a secure fine ranging in IEEE 802.15.4z

As we can see, Ultra-Wideband has evolved into an impulse radio-based secure ranging and localization technology. The latest 802.15.4z standard has added additional security extensions and provides centimeter-level accurate distance and location measurement. This opens the door for the technology in various applications that demand secure fine ranging and positioning, including automotive, mobile, smart home, smart building, and other IoT solution providers.

The Uniqueness of Ultra-Wideband Technology

The re-emergence of UWB has been down to the advantages it offers above other technologies, especially regarding location accuracy, latency, robustness, and security. Other technologies rely on RSSI (received signal strength indication) techniques to calculate distance and location information from signal strength. This means they are susceptible to relay station attacks from unauthorized remote users, spoofing signals, and causing false readings.

UWB, on the other hand, offers robust resistance against such attacks as it can determine the ToF with much higher accuracy. Thus, it can detect when the ToF is too long for the device to be in close proximity truly. This thwarts relay attacks and enables us to determine the exact distance between devices.

Apart from security, UWB’s flexibility to integrate with other technologies is also something that has led to a rise in its popularity. The key differentiator here is that UWB isn’t a direct connectivity technology; rather, it is a technology that can be adapted to target popular secure fine ranging applications such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth LE, and NFC.

The Resurgence of Ultra-Wideband Technology

The comeback of UWB technology started when Apple decided to use their UWB chips in iPhone 11 and iPhone 12 devices. Samsung followed suit with Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and Z Fold 2 in August 2020. Apart from smartphones, UWB also set its foot in wearables with the Apple Watch Series 6.

UWB is expected to be adopted by one-third of the smartphones shipping in 2025, translating to over 500 million annual shipments. Moreover, one billion annual device shipment devices are projected to be backed by UWB technology.

Applications of Ultra-Wideband Technology in IoT

Real-Time Location Systems (RTLS) in Various Industries

One of the most obvious and widespread uses of UWB technology has been in real-time location systems. They can track assets and personnel with high accuracy, thus saving billions of dollars by enhancing operational efficiencies, increasing worker safety, and preventing loss/theft.

An example of UWB usage is in the healthcare industry, where RTLS are deployed to track available beds to maximize utilization, trace valuable equipment to prevent theft or losses, track patient/staff location, and monitor staff for hygiene compliance purposes. Recently, UWB-enabled RTLS have also been used to minimize the spread of infection by ensuring social distancing and contact tracing.

Indoor Navigation

With UWB being adopted in smartphones, it opens the door to facilitate precise indoor navigation services. Such services make navigating through large buildings such as train stations, airports, or shopping malls easier. For example, you can find a particular room within a hospital or find empty car parking spaces in large spaces.

Although Wi-Fi and Bluetooth LE allow indoor navigation, UWB does it with much higher accuracy and enables indoor navigation and location-based marketing campaigns.

Access Control

UWB enables home and business owners to track people and allows contactless access to authorized people. This is bound to increase the security of your home or workplace.Compared to other technologies being used for access control, UWB is advantageous for two reasons: its protection against relay attacks and its ability to detect if a person is indoors or outdoors. These capabilities reduce time, enhance user experience, and thwart privacy and security issues.

Tracking of Devices & Personal Items

Another area where UWB is set to make its presence felt is tracking electronic devices. This has also been down to its rapid adoption by high-end smartphones. Smartphones with UWB can locate items such as keys, wallets, backpacks, and other personal items. You only need to attach a UWB tag, and then the technology takes care of the rest.

This is another area positioned to replace Bluetooth LE because of its higher accuracy and low latency.

Smart Home Solutions

Imagine a home where you don’t need to press a single button to turn on or off your lights, tv, geyser, or any other appliance. That’s what a smart home looks like, and right now, we are far away from it. UWB is set to bridge this gap as it fulfills the absence of highly accurate indoor location technologies.

Smart home devices can leverage UWB technology to enable smart homes by identifying the person, location, and intention. For example, if you are coming from a long day at work and like to take a hot shower, then it’ll automatically heat the water so that you won’t have to do it manually when you get home.

Next-gen smart homes will have fully automated devices that will have seamless connectivity among themselves. UWB will play a huge role due to its ability to pinpoint the distance and direction between different UWB-enabled devices accurately.

UWB-Enabled IoT is the Future

As we can see, it’s quite obvious that the Ultra-Wideband (UWB) technology is making a comeback and will be a part of our daily lives. The smartphone companies have also been standardized by the Car Connectivity Consortium (CCC), FiRa, and UWB alliance. How these organizations work together will determine the speed at which UWB will be adopted in the near future.

Even though UWB offers various advantages over other technologies, it still has to overcome a few challenges, with expensive UWB chips being one of them. That’s been the reason why it’s still only been adopted by high-end smartphones. We will have to see when the manufacturing costs come down, and UWB becomes a part of the low-end devices. 

Even though there are a few obstacles, there’s no doubt that we will see the real potential of UWB technology as the ecosystem develops and the number of UWB-enabled devices increases. This little piece of technology will change our world for the better.

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Adam Tanton

Adam Tanton

Adam is a partner in B2BNN with over 15 years experience in the enterprise technology field.