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The Booming UWB Market

by Chris Taylor | Sep 09, 2021

Yesterday I moderated a Microwave Journal panel discussion about ultra-wideband (UWB) technology and applications.  Representatives of Qorvo, NXP Semis, Samsung, Rohde & Schwartz participated.  At least two of the panelists had direct involvement in the FiRa Consortium, an industry group developing and promoting applications of UWB.

The consensus of the panelists?  UWB chips are shipping in high volume in the Apple iPhone 11 and iPhone 12 smartphones, some Samsung devices, and in smart tag accessories to go with these phones to allow consumers to tag and find lost objects such as keys.   But this is just the start of the use cases for UWB and just the start of the market for UWB chips and systems.

UWB offers advantages over other ways of locating objects in space.  UWB has inherent resistance to multipath fading in situations such as crowded indoor homes, offices, factories, and retail locations.  UWB performs with centimeter accuracy and high reliability, and it penetrates smoke and fog.  The technology uses very narrow, low energy RF impulses, and so can perform with exceptionally low power consumption compared to other wireless technologies.  UWB systems derive distance between peer devices or between a gateway and peers using time of flight and sometimes angle of arrival and other signal information.  UWB can also support up to 27 Mbps data transmission under the present standard.

The accuracy and the low RF signal strength make UWB resistant to spoofing and difficult to detect for hackers.  For example, if a hacker succeeds in intercepting a UWB signal from a smartphone and generating a spoofed copy let’s say to open a car door, the spoofed signal will appear with a different flight time indicating a (usually) farther source distance than the genuine transmission source.  Secure distance bounding makes differentiating the authentic from the spoofed signal relatively easy.

A UWB radio uses several other methods to provide security.  The UWB PHY itself incorporates cypher defense measures, and the MAC provides authentication and encryption.  A secure microcontroller can be added to manage and store really sensitive credentials such as user identities and bank account numbers used for payment processing.  Several chip companies, for example NXP Semis, have expertise in wireless technologies that can be used for payment such as NFC, RFID, UWB, and in secure element chips.

The FiRa Consortium has formed a Requirements Working Group, and members have so far come up with 35 high-priority use cases.  Beyond use in smartphones and consumer tags to find lost objects, some higher-value use cases include:

  • BMW uses UWB for hands free access control in the upcoming BMW iX “fully connected, fully electric” automobile using BMW’s Digital Key Plus.
  • The NFL uses UWB to track the location of players and footballs on the field in real time.
  • The LinkTrack from Namoton Technology can report the locations of up to 40 drones at the same time.
  • Boeing uses UWB to locate one tool among 10,000 on the factory floor.
  • Alltran claims to have been the first to offer UWB-based systems for social distancing.Alltran’s system uses UWB wristwatches, UWB from 3dB Access, and microcontrollers from Renesas.Other companies now offer similar systems for use in retail stores, hospital waiting rooms, and other potential infectious environments.

In the future, UWB capabilities could include UWB-based radar for presence detection.  UWB radar could find use in automobiles for occupancy detection, in smart speakers and televisions for gesture recognition, and even for health monitoring, for example using UWB for contactless pulse rate measurement.  The chip suppliers and the IEEE 802.15.4 group are working to improve the precision of UWB to the millimeter level using phase of arrival and other techniques.  This would help expand the use cases and further stratify the market into several price-performance tiers ranging from consumer and commercial to precision tiers.

With shipments already exceeding 100 million chips per year, UWB has gotten the attention of OEMs across many applications, and UWB has a promising future.  The standards are in place, but one piece still missing is interoperability; the FiRa Consortium has said that certification efforts will start in Q4 2021.

For more about UWB, clients can read the Strategy Analytics report The Return of UWB: Chip Forecast in Smartphones, Automotive, Industrial & More.

You can also replay the Microwave Journal webinar on UWB recorded on September 8, 2021.

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