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Understanding Ultra Wideband Positioning Applications and What Makes Them More Precise

By Adam Smith

October 13, 2020

UWB positioning application
Mobile devices sending out radio waves which spread out in a crowd of people.

In my previous blog post, I explored the history of Ultra Wideband (UWB) and the basics of how the technology works. As I discussed in the previous post, UWB is not a new technology. It’s revamped and reconsidered and back again for new applications. UWB is not positioned as a big data pipe moving gigabits of data through the air. UWB is targeting applications that need its position, direction, ranging and location benefits.

Ultra Wideband positioning is better than other wireless technologies, but not for the reason that you may think. If you’re familiar with wireless signals and how bandwidth works, the wider the bandwidth, the more information you can put out there. So, you may think UWB is transmitting more information and that’s why it’s more precise. But in reality, the wider the bandwidth in the frequency domain, the narrower the bandwidth in the time domain. UWB has very, very short pulses and thus it offers very precise timing because the pulses occur with a nanosecond duration rather than a microsecond or millisecond duration. These pulses require to be transmitted with picosecond-level precision

Additionally, UWB is very immune to interference and is transmitted at a low signal power. So, it doesn’t really interfere with other devices that are operating in the same spectrum.

UWB is a unique technology that is really trying to be a companion to other technologies to open up new use cases across a variety of different consumer, automotive, and industrial applications. The use cases for UWB are mainly grouped into three different areas, including hands-free access control, location-based services and peer-to-peer applications.

Hands-Free Access Control

Hands-free access control involves wirelessly signaling a lock to open allowing a person to gain access to someplace, possibly a facility or a vehicle or an unmanned store, for example. In this type of use case, UWB is used to authenticate a user and allow access based on that authentication.

One hands-free access use case you’ve probably experienced or seen mentioned in the news is automotive entry. Unfortunately, there have been a lot of stories around people stealing cars based off of the wireless key fobs that exist today.

Other technologies used for automotive access today, such as Bluetooth, can provide a range from one device to another device, but it uses the signal strength, or the received signal strength indicator (RSSI) to determine the range. Unfortunately, signal strength is fairly easy to intercept and hack. What can happen is something called a “relay hack” where a bad actor intercepts the signal and then rebroadcasts it and fakes it. These relay attacks make the car think the owner is actually standing next to the vehicle.

UWB can actually help significantly in this application because UWB is based on time-of-flight (ToF) – you can’t record the message and rebroadcast it. Time is time, and rebroadcasting the signal introduces latency. Because of this, UWB can significantly improve security for hands-free access.

Location-based Services

Another common use case is location-based services. A classic example is asset tracking – being able to follow an asset through a factory line or managing inventory. Other applications include sharing economy uses such as bike sharing or ride sharing, gaming, or indoor navigation in a crowded space such as a mall or an airport.

Take for example a very crowded baggage claim area. UWB can bring a GPS-style, indoor navigation that is very precise. UWB can provide roughly 10-centimeter precision for positional accuracy. Even in a crowded environment, UWB can deal with a multipath environment. UWB signals can go through people, through walls and through other barriers. So, UWB makes it easy to navigate spaces and find an object in a crowded area.

Peer-to-Peer Applications

One more use case example is device-to-device or peer-to-peer applications. UWB allows for to ability to very accurately determine where a device is located in space. Use cases may include ticket validation for concert tickets or VR gaming and group play, for example. Other UWB use case in a healthcare environment may include sharing patient data within the hospital facility or finding equipment in a room.

Industrial safety is another potential use case for UWB. A good analogy is that UWB would give “nerve endings” at the end of sensors on equipment. Meaning two devices can tell where they are relative to each other, very precisely so that they don’t collide. So, in an industrial environment, as a worker wearing a hardhat with a sensor approaches a front loader, the hardhat can tell the front loader it is too close and cause it to stop.

UWB’s high precision and secure fine ranging capabilities make it uniquely suited for a wide range of applications. However successful deployments of UWB devices depend on the accuracy of their fine ranging capabilities, making testing of these capabilities critical.

In the next post, we’ll explore what testing solutions LitePoint has available for ensuring UWB quality, as well as details on the work we’re doing with the FiRa Consortium. In the meantime, please visit the replay of my webinar on this topic.

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