Now that we have NFC and Bluetooth, why do we need UWB?
Image source: freepik.com
UWB (Ultra-Wideband) is a short-range wireless communication technology that provides more precise readings than other positioning technologies currently in use. Using time-of-flight (ToF) and angle-of-arrival (AoA) calculations, UWB can Determine the location within +/-10 cm. Its key benefits include: low latency, high reliability, high accuracy at high refresh rates, and scalability, even in harsh environments.
UWB technology, built on the IEEE 802.15.4a/z standard, operates over a wide spectrum, allowing fast data transmission at low power. As a result, UWB provides highly accurate and precise location and fine ranging measurements, while also supporting high levels of security to protect access credentials and data communications.
Commercially, UWB has broad application prospects. In 2019, Apple announced the use of its new U1 chip in the iPhone 11. Starting from this chip, UWB has fully started its application journey in consumer electronics products. Subsequently, UWB entered some other key technology areas. In the era of Industry 4.0, UWB is one of the fastest-growing technologies in the field of real-time positioning systems (RTLS). Its reliability and anti-interference capabilities make it the best choice for wireless communications in industrial environments. In automotive applications, UWB ensures secure access to cars.
UWB technology overview
UWB, which was born in the 1960s, was initially used only for military purposes. It can accurately track objects within 10 centimeters, has a coverage range of 10-200 meters, and has strong anti-interference capabilities. Very different from other wireless data transmission methods, UWB is a technology based on pulse pattern radio that sends data in the time domain with frequencies ranging from 3.1 to 10.6 GHz.
Figure 1: Operating frequency distribution diagram of ultra-wideband UWB and other wireless data transmission technologies (Source: eliko.tech)
Of course, the pulse method of transmitting data requires more spectrum to work reliably, which is why it is named ultra-wideband. Because of the wide frequency spectrum, pulse data can be sent very quickly without losing accuracy. UWB single frequency bands are typically 500MHz, while 4G LTE bands are only 5 to 20MHz and Wi-Fi bands are 20MHz to 80MHz. Typically, UWB can reach data rates of 4Mbps to 675Mbps or higher, which is much faster than NFC's 424Kbps and Bluetooth's standard 2.1Mbps speed, but lower than Wi-Fi 6's 2Gbps.
Not interfering with other wireless devices working at the same time (such as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth devices) is another feature of UWB. To avoid mutual interference, most wireless technologies are typically limited to very narrow frequency bands. The operating level of UWB is very low and basically falls within the noise floor of other wireless technologies, effectively avoiding mutual interference problems.
To sum up, the "ultra-wideband" represented by UWB is a short-range wireless communication technology that has a wide spectrum and is easy to detect, but the power is low enough not to interfere with other signals and can achieve extremely precise position tracking. UWB-enabled devices can send and receive data over short distances at incredible speeds. Most often, these "pulse-based" radio waves are used to measure location by precisely timing the time it takes for a wireless pulse to travel between two different devices.
Enter security ranging and
As mentioned earlier, UWB is not a new technology. It was initially positioned as a data transmission technology similar to Wi-Fi, but due to various reasons, including power limitations, it has not been successful in commercial use. When the technology was repositioned and developed mainly towards safe ranging and positioning technology based on pulse radio and based on the IEEE 802.15.4a standard, UWB was given the ability to secure, reliable, and centimeter-level accurate distance and position measurements. The main attraction of UWB is its extremely high position and orientation accuracy, which can pinpoint the location of objects to an error of only a few centimeters, significantly higher than Bluetooth, GPS and other tracking methods. This application has already been demonstrated in Internet-connected tracking devices such as Apple AirTag and Samsung Galaxy SmartTag Plus.
In the automotive industry, manufacturers such as BMW, Audi, Ford and Hyundai have said that UWB-equipped devices may one day become a secure digital car key. While various forms of keyless entry technology already exist, the adoption of UWB will enable vehicles to measure the exact location of a remote key within a few centimeters in real time, greatly improving vehicle security compared to other wireless standards. In the future, you can unlock your vehicle with a UWB-enabled device (such as a smartphone) or a wearable device using its digital key platform, instead of having to carry a separate remote key with you.
As UWB technology transitions to large-scale commercial use, enterprises know that the success of UWB technology must be based on an interoperable, universal and connected ecosystem. The FiRa (Fine Ranging) Alliance, established in August 2019, is a non-profit association that supports the use of UWB technology in use cases such as access control, location-based services, and device-to-device services, aiming to comprehensively develop the UWB ecosystem so that New use cases for fine ranging capabilities can be successful. The alliance currently has more than 100 members, including leaders in semiconductor, mobile phone, industrial, IoT and automotive industries, such as NXP, Samsung, Xiaomi, Oppo, Bosch, Cisco, Sony, HID, Hyundai Motor, etc.
With NFC and Bluetooth,
If the ultra-wideband applications we're discussing sound familiar, that's because many of them already use NFC and Bluetooth technology. This begs the question, why do we need to consider another wireless technology when we already have NFC and Bluetooth? When is UWB preferred?
When designing indoor positioning systems, the technologies that engineers first think of or often use are Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). These technologies are very useful for data communications, but none of them were invented for real-time location services (RTLS). In addition, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and other narrowband radio systems can achieve an accuracy of several meters. Coupled with the mutual electromagnetic interference between a large number of electronic devices indoors, it is difficult to accurately detect their locations in real time. Therefore, these technologies cannot meet all indoor real-time positioning needs.
So, when will UWB be the preferred choice?
When high-speed data transmission, high-precision fast position detection and/or low interference risk are key requirements, UWB is at home. Compared with narrowband wireless technologies, wideband means UWB can provide stable connections even in crowded multipath signal environments, with little interference and accurate positioning. Therefore, UWB provides higher positioning accuracy than Bluetooth and NFC. The NFC operating frequency is 13.56MHz, and in most cases the physical distance required for data transmission must be very close. The transmission distance of UWB is between Bluetooth and NFC, and its application is more flexible. Also, UWB works well in scenarios that require additional security, such as wireless vehicle access. Of course, this does not mean that UWB can directly replace other wireless technologies already on the market. On the contrary, the combination of UWB and BLE technology can benefit smart home, automotive, consumer and industrial applications. For different use cases, UWB gives us a better and more versatile choice.
As for the shortcomings of UWB, from a technical perspective, the special feature of this technology is that it does not have many shortcomings. It is energy-saving, versatile, cost-effective, and almost immune to external attacks and interference. But from an application perspective, low cost performance is indeed the main shortcoming of UWB. NFC and Bluetooth solutions are both cheap, especially for low-power beacons or passive NFC tags. Comparing the two, UWB is not only more expensive, but also needs to work under active conditions.
UWB application prospects
Although UWB is being integrated into more smartphones every year, most devices in people's hands are still not equipped to transmit or receive UWB signals, severely hampering the potential of this technology in the consumer world. Despite the support of devices such as Apple AirTag and Samsung Galaxy SmartTag Plus, the current adoption rate of UWB is still not high. In the field of commercial applications, the popularity of UWB is far lower than that of Bluetooth, NFC and Wi-Fi, but the unique technical advantages of UWB still allow people to see its application potential in the future.
01 Car security keyless entry (car digital key)
While this technology has yet to be adopted by the entire automotive industry, its use is increasing every year. BMW already uses UWB for keyless entry in some of its newer models such as the iX. One of the core advantages of using ultra-wideband for digital keys is that UWB can effectively prevent external attacks.
02 Real-time information transmission in autonomous driving
UWB can emit 1 billion pulses per second, and the ranging accuracy can be accurate to within a few centimeters. Autonomous vehicles require precisely this kind of reliable and ultra-responsive sensors to ensure safe driving. What other technology is more suitable than UWB to help driverless cars "see" the objects around them? However, UWB has not yet been fully utilized in autonomous vehicles. In the future, UWB is expected to be used as a wireless communication technology to provide accurate and real-time information in connected vehicles.
03 Asset Tracking
In smartphones, Apple and Samsung have used UWB technology to enable indoor tracking of their smartphones through AirTag and Galaxy Smart Tag+ devices respectively. Among them, the AirTag wireless tracker is a combination of BLE and UWB technologies. With the help of UWB technology, users can see on their mobile phones how far away the AirTag is and which direction to look for. In the industrial field, we can use UWB technology to track a large number of expensive tools, parts and equipment in factories to ensure that no valuable items are lost.
04 Positioning and automatic control of smart home equipment
UWB has huge application potential in the smart home industry. An extremely simple application can be to find a smartphone that is forgotten somewhere in the house by sending instructions to the smart speaker in the smart home system. Or use UWB to make smart homes smarter, such as using a smartphone with UWB to control home devices, and programming a UWB digital door lock to automatically unlock when the owner is close to the door.
05 Real-time tracking in sports
In sports, UWB can be used to track the position of players on the field to facilitate technical statistics and referees. Even UWB antennas are placed inside the football and update the football's position about 2,000 times per second. These applications not only help referees make accurate decisions, but also allow on-site commentators to provide more forward-looking insights. Of course, these applications may be icing on the cake and may not appear to have as much business value as consumer and industrial applications.
UWB development status and
In September 2019, Apple announced that it would introduce a specially designed U1 UWB transceiver in iPhone 11. Soon, such innovation inspired other smartphone manufacturers such as Samsung and Xiaomi to develop and apply UWB. Semiconductor manufacturers such as Qorvo and STMicroelectronics quickly captured this business opportunity and quickly entered the UWB market through the acquisition of DecaWave and BeSpoon.
In the consumer electronics market, Apple's U1 chip with UWB transceiver has been embedded in devices such as iPhone, Apple Watch, iPad and AirTag. Utilizing the high-speed transmission capability of UWB, the transmission speed of the "air delivery" function is greatly improved. In addition, Apple has opened the U1 interface to application developers and synchronized it to the IEEE802.15.4z standard. With access to Apple's Nearby Interaction protocol and API, developers will be able to take advantage of UWB's spatial awareness to build applications that communicate with accessories simply by being in close proximity to a U1-equipped iPhone or Apple Watch. Currently, the U1 chip is compatible with UWB transceivers from Qorvo and NXP.
NXP is the first company to provide system-level UWB solutions. The public beta UWB development tools in the NXP Trimension product portfolio are compatible with the U1 chip in Apple products and support the development of new ultra-wideband applications for iPhone and Apple Watch. This development tool is based on Trimention SR150 and SR040, a dedicated UWB IoT solution portfolio. According to the FiRa Consortium specification, all PHY/MAC operations are handled within the UWB IC, allowing developers to quickly bring solutions to market.
Qorvo, an excellent provider of radio frequency solutions, announced in June 2021 that its DW3000 series products have achieved interoperability with Apple's U1 chip used in iPhones and Apple Watches. This compatibility will allow developers to easily evaluate new app experiences based on location, distance and orientation from a U1-equipped iPhone or Apple Watch. DW3000 is Qorvo's next-generation ultra-wideband (UWB) chipset series. There are four UWB chipset series DW3110, DW3120, DW3210, and DW3220, which are optimized for low-power battery-operated applications. Supports data rates up to 6.8 Mbps via UWB Channel 5 (6.5 GHz) and Channel 9 (8 GHz) while providing precise positioning with ranging accuracy within 10 cm and angle measurement accuracy within +/-5 degrees.
Figure 2: Qorvo’s next-generation ultra-wideband chipset DW3000
In the automotive industry, traditional key fobs allow users to lock and unlock their cars, open windows, or start the engine. Now, these functions are all provided by Digital Key. In addition to this, digital keys that comply with the Car Connectivity Alliance (CCC) specifications can expand additional comfort functions and achieve complete control over car access. For example, CCC digital keys allow users to share access among family and friends, regardless of physical distance, and this access can be transferred instantly and at any time. With the release of the CCC digital key version 3.0 specification, the standard for smartphones to become fully digital car keys has been determined. Digital Key 3.0 version provides true keyless car access based on UWB's unique positioning capabilities. It not only provides the same comfort and security as traditional remote key-based solutions, but also does not require a smartphone to operate. Interactive, meaning users don’t have to take their phone out of their pocket to open an app, allowing for true hands-free access.
In March 2023, Samsung launched the Exynos Connect U100 chip equipped with UWB function, which is optimized to achieve safe ranging and accurate sensing between automobiles, mobile and IoT devices. The Samsung U100 chip integrates flash memory, radio frequency, baseband and power management technology on a single chip, making it ideal for compact devices such as the Galaxy SmartTag+. The chip also has on-board Scrambled Timestamp Sequence (STS) functionality, a physical encryption technology that allows device-level encryption of packets’ timestamps. Samsung Exynos Connect U100 has been certified by the FiRa Alliance and complies with the CCC Digital Key 3.0 specification.
Figure 3: Exynos Connect U100 chip equipped with UWB function (Source: Samsung)
NXP NCJ29D5 is the first product in NXP’s new generation UWB IC series, designed to meet the connectivity and functional safety needs of automobiles. It enables several compelling new use cases, including: UWB ICs enable cars to know the user’s exact location; UWB door locks on cars automatically unlock when you approach, providing secure, hands-free opening; Users can still open and start their cars with their phones in their pockets or bags, and enjoy secure remote parking services through their smartphones. In addition, ToF calculation makes UWB less susceptible to relay attacks based on signal amplification, so this UWB IC can largely avoid the risk of car theft.
Figure 4: NXP NCJ29D5 evaluation board (Source: NXP)
Among secure ultra-wideband solutions for IoT tags, NXP Trimension SR150 and SR040 are the first UWB chipsets to obtain FiRa certification. In October 2021, the FiRa Alliance announced a new certification program, and Trimension SR150 and SR040 are the first chipsets to obtain PHY/MAC Conformance and Interoperability Base (Base) certification. FiRa certification means that the NXP Ultra-Wideband chipset has been verified by an independent authorized testing laboratory to comply with the new version of the IEEE UWB standard 802.15.4z. Among them, Trimension SR040 supports low-power operation, reducing the need for external components, and is designed for button battery-powered IoT devices, such as UWB trackers and tags. Built-in NXP FiRa MAC supports interoperability and speeds time to market. Trimension SR040 can also be integrated with BLE or other connection controllers in a device to facilitate the development of more IoT applications. Trimension SR150 mainly adds angle of arrival (AoA) technology to improve accuracy, making it ideal for UWB applications in various large infrastructures, such as access control devices, indoor localization settings and payment solutions, as well as consumer products such as TVs and game consoles. Additionally, multiple devices using the SR150 can be placed in the same room as ultra-wideband anchors to help locate people and objects moving around the room.
Figure 5: The first SR040 chip to obtain FiRa Alliance PHY/MAC conformance and interoperability basic certification (Source: NXP)
UWB technology has appeared in the commercial market for several years. However, its application is far from being as common as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. Currently, it can only be seen on some more expensive devices on the market. Investigating the reason, we found that although UWB is integrated into more smartphones every year, most devices in people's hands are still not equipped with equipment to transmit or receive UWB signals, seriously hindering the development of this technology in the consumer industry speed. This is expected to change soon as UWB technology makes its way into the vehicle and tracking markets. Data from market consulting firm Statista shows that the global passenger car access control market based on UWB technology will be worth approximately US$56.5 million in 2022, becoming a major market segment in the entire market. The market is expected to grow in the coming years, reaching $230.4 million by 2031.
Currently, the UWB market is facing fierce competition from alternative products such as Bluetooth, GPS and Wi-Fi. Although UWB is superior to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi in many aspects, such as high security, low power consumption, high bandwidth, two-way communication, etc., making it well received in many applications, however, UWB is not used widely due to low industry usage. Its products are more expensive and marketing remains difficult.
Ultra-wideband is a wireless technology that provides more accurate real-time tracking and positioning capabilities than other wireless technologies. Smartphones with built-in ultrawideband chips can find wallets, keys and other personal items with UWB tags.
Forecasts from the well-known analysis agency Mordor Intelligence show that the UWB market size is expected to grow from US$1.55 billion in 2023 to US$3.45 billion in 2028, with a compound annual growth rate of 17.37%. The growing popularity and penetration of consumer electronic devices such as smartphones is driving the growth of this market. In addition, since UWB technology has higher ranging and positioning accuracy than Wi-Fi and RFID, applications that require RTLS in the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) have begun to shift from Wi-Fi and RFID to UWB technology to improve efficiency and shorten the time. Delivery cycle and cost reduction are also an important reason for the growth of the UWB market.
Smartphones are considered to be the most heavily shipped consumer products, and although not all smartphones have UWB technology, since the launch of the iPhone 11 in September 2019, many companies including Google, Samsung and Xiaomi have released Products using UWB technology. Within the Internet of Things, AirTags, AirPods, and devices in the smart home market are all considered.
These are just the use cases that have already emerged. Considering the ubiquity of wireless smart devices and the advantages of UWB are so obvious, we expect to hear more news about the widespread application of UWB technology in the next few years.
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