A newly formed consortium is reviving an IEEE standard with an eye toward improving mobile positioning information to within centimeters, while also providing better security by heading off interception and spoofing of signals.
The FiRa (Fine Ranging) Consortium launched this month to support an ecosystem for Ultra Wideband development, with NXP Semiconductors, Samsung Electronics, Bosch and HID Global as founding members.
This UWB is not to be confused with Verizon’s 5G UWB network, the term under which its 5G network is marketed. It is a relatively short range (about 10 meters) pulse signal that is more akin to radar, according to Adam Smith, director of product marketing at test company LitePoint.
“This is about machines understanding where you are,” he said, adding that rather than serving as a standalone wireless system, UWB is more about serving as an “entry point into a system.”
In its previous incarnation, around 2007, UWB was positioned as a wireless USB replacement and also known as WiMedia; its standards group was shuttered in 2010 after transferring its specs to several other groups, including Bluetooth SIG. Some vendors made chipsets with UWB support, but the technology was essentially beat out by the success of Wi-Fi and other short-range technologies, according to Smith. Now, IEEE’s 802.15.4z is being resuscitated not as a standalone technology, but one that is meant to act as a companion to existing wireless tech.
Sony Imaging Products & Solutions Inc., LitePoint and the Telecommunications Technology Association are the first companies that have joined the FiRa Consortium. LitePoint is the only test company in its ranks at this point, and the company already has an UWB testing solution on that market that is supporting product development.
Smith said that UWB can provide relative position, relative speed and relative angle information that essentially allows two devices to know where each one is in relation to the other with a high amount of precision and makes UWB less susceptible to things like relay attacks and spoofing, where hackers can intercept signals from a wireless transmitter (such as a key fob) and rebroadcast them (to do something like unlock or steal a vehicle).
“It’s really high-frequency, it’s very broadband, and it has short pulses,” Smith said. The standard calls for the use of spectrum between 3.5-10.5 GHz, but in reality, devices usually operate around 6-8.5 GHz to 10 GHz, Smith said — very close to today’s Wi-Fi frequencies. The UWB signal uses 500 megahertz of channel bandwidth and nanosecond pulses, and it operates under the Federal Communications Commission’s Part 15 rules.
“This is not a technology that’s looking to displace existing technologies,” Smith said. “It’s a technology that is looking to explore new use cases and be more of a companion than a replacement.”
In other words, it’s not seeking to do the things that Bluetooth or Wi-Fi do today. In fact, it’s not carrying much data at all, Smith said. UWB relies on the large amount of bandwidth that it uses to establish less than 10 centimeter accuracy, he said, which is “much more precise than a lot of the other positioning technologies out there.” That makes it particularly interesting for high-precision applications in mobile gaming or augmented or virtual reality.
“It’s a new tool in the toolkit,” Smith said.
There are three aspects of UWB that make it challenging to test, Smith added. The frequency range is outside the sub-6 GHz frequency range that most bench instruments are equipped to test and the signal is low-power. The wideband nature of the signal means that both signal generation and signal analysis have to be able to to handle that much bandwidth. And the most unique element is the timing, he said: to trigger and verify the nanosecond UWB signals, picosecond timing precision is required in the instrument.
Litepoint, Smith said, has been investing in UWB for the last couple of years and already has its IQgig UWB test platform on the market — the box was at Mobile World Congress Barcelona this year for a soft launch. The company expects to begin seeing UWB products come to market within the next six to 12 months, with some chipset makers having already announced plans.
The applications of UWB “extend well beyond access security,” Tirias Research principal analyst and partner Jim McGregor recently wrote for Forbes. “When you combine location and security aspects of UWB with the fact that UWB does not interfere with other traditional forms of narrow band communications, the range can be extended to potentially 100 meters or more, and it can share antenna and possibly even RF solutions with other communications solutions, UWB could be used in a plethora of applications.” He mentioned patient monitoring, asset tracking and secure transmission of information such as sensor data for image, radar and lidar sensors in automotive or smart city applications.
Decawave is one of the companies which have announced plans for a UWB chip roadmap, and it is using LitePoint’s IQgig-UWB offering to validate its chipsets. NXP has also announced plans for UWB at its developer conference last month, with targeted markets including mobile, automotive, IoT and industrial.
Kurt Sievers, president at NXP, said in a statement at the time that the UWB “sparks exciting new use cases that have never before been possible. The technology not only understands motion and relative positioning outdoors and indoors, but its real-time robust accuracy can change the way we drive efficiency in factories, play interactive games or use AR/AI applications on our phones.”
“Its ability to process contextual information such as the position of the UWB anchor, its movements, and distance to other devices with an unprecedented precision of a few centimeters, enables decision making and management of these devices to take place with high granularity,” NXP said of the UWB technology. The company envisioned use cases such as doors and points of entry opening upon approach; lights, audio speakers and other connected devices with sensors “following” consumers from room to room.
“Smart connected technology will blend in more intuitively in people’s lives” through the use of UWB, NXP said.