Ultra-wideband (UWB) adoption picks up pace - Embedded.com

Ultra-wideband (UWB) adoption picks up pace


With news reports suggesting Tesla is looking at using ultra-wideband (UWB) technology to enable unlocking of its cars, plus expected tracker tags from Samsung, Apple and even Tile using UWB, there is clearly a sudden momentum behind this technology.

This article presents extracts of a conversation during a recent podcast, “The ultra-wide possibilities of ultra-wideband”, which explores the background and opportunities of UWB, ranging from defining the opportunities presented by UWB, to standardization, interoperability, and market adoption. I discuss these topics with Charles Dachs, VP and general manager for secure embedded transactions at NXP Semiconductors and Ramesh Songukrishnasamy, SVP and CTO at HID Global.

Keyless car fobs and tracker tags emerge with UWB

Before getting into the conversation, recent developments certainly indicate that the rate of adoption is likely to pick up in the very near future.

In January, BMW officially announced its BMW Digital Key Plus, to be launched in its all-electric BMW iX. Users of iPhones incorporating the UWB-enabled U1 chip can conveniently and securely gain keyless access to the car. This takes advantage of the secure and precise localization enabled with the short-range, high-bandwidth UWB technology. The precision ensures that relay attacks, where the radio signal is jammed or intercepted, are not possible. Apple and BMW have been working closely with the Car Connectivity Consortium (CCC) to establish the Digital Key specification 3.0 for UWB, providing a global standard for the automotive industry.

BMW’s Digital Key Plus, to be launched in its all-electric BMW iX, enables users of iPhones incorporating the UWB-enabled U1 chip to conveniently and securely gain keyless access to the car. (Image: BMW)

In addition Tesla filed a document with the FCC for a key fob with UWB operating in the frequency range of 6489.6- 7987.2 MHz, BLE and passive NFC capabilities. This was filed with other documents but one particular submission from Tesla which was available briefly online before being removed that described the device included this description:

“The device is a fully integrated single chip Impulse Radio Ultra Wideband (IR-UWB) low energy low-cost transceiver IC. The device supports frame formats, which are compliant to IEEE 802.15.4 HRP UWB PHY and IEEE draft 802.15.4z-D03 BPRF/HPRF UWB PHY. It is designed for secure ranging applications in an automotive environment. It can be used in 2-way ranging or TDOA location systems to locate assets to a precision down to 10cm. It also supports data transfer rates up to 7.8Mbps.”

It goes on to describe how UWB ranging provides a distance estimate, based on a time of flight measurement, which make it immune to relay attacks, a common challenge for cars using keyless entry fobs.

The UWB podcast highlights

What makes all of these developments possible is UWB’s ability to provide spatial awareness to smart edge devices. What does this mean for access control for the consumer and for the ultra-wideband ecosystem? Charles Dachs and Ramesh Songukrishnasamy explain.

 This in the podcast. Here are the highlights.

UWB evolution and what the technology enables

How has UWB technology evolved over the years?

Charles Dachs

Dachs: Many years ago, it started as a data transfer technology and at that time was competing with technologies like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. But since then, UWB has gone through several transformations, evolving from an OFDM-based data transfer communication technology to an impulse radio technology, which is specified in IEEE. And more recently, it’s been enhanced with security extensions and a number of things that guarantee integrity and accuracy of ranging measurements. Today, it truly is actually a sensing technology. It provides the unique ability to provide secure location capabilities of devices with respect to each other.

What does UWB enable?

Dachs: Its sensing capability makes it possible for devices to understand their respective location with respect to each other, in a very accurate way. When you provide that capability to devices, they now can act in an intelligent manner based on their understanding of that relative location.

Ramesh Songukrishnasamy

Songukrishnasamy: It enables things like an accurate ability to locate relative position as well as doing it in a very secured manner. This makes it possible to provide consistent, seamless users experiences – such as when you unlock the smart lock into your home or unlock your car or access your workspace.

UWB in my view enables a higher level of accuracy in positioning capabilities, right along with increased security compared to other RF technologies. And UWB is also more immune to RF interference so it works much better in high traffic settings. I think these capabilities will enable a much better seamless user experience in a variety of use cases like hands-free access control in your workplace, hospitals, hotels, homes. That, I think to me is one of the key differentiations of this technology.

How is accuracy important for secure access in this context?

Songukrishnasamy: It plays two important roles. For secure access, it is about making sure that it’s you and it’s only you and not somebody else tailgating. Secondly, and most importantly, is the user experience. With ability to pinpoint where you are precisely in a location, you can then enable more advanced capabilities like intent detection. This means if somebody is walking towards the door, you use the location trajectory to determine if the door should be unlocked, and then verify the credentials to unlock it, so it becomes seamless. And if it’s an automatic door, as you approach, the door automatically opens and then as soon as you exit a certain space outside of the door, it automatically closes. Or, if you’re just passing by the door, by looking at the angle of arrival and the trajectory, it can say determine that this individual, even though he or she has the valid digital credential is not intending to open the door, so I’m not going to unlock this door.

How does UWB compare with using other technologies like Bluetooth, Wi-Fi?

Dachs: Fundamentally the physics are different. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth LE rely on a moderated sine wave carried over a narrow frequency whereas UWB very short pulse signal operating over 500 MHz frequency. That fundamental difference in physics means that Bluetooth LE, Wi-Fi are just by nature more susceptible to environmental factors. Whereas UWB benefits from the fact that the pulse signal maintains its accuracy, even as the distance between the device is increases.

Songukrishnasamy: In terms of standards, since we are starting with a specific use case for UWB, as a consortium we are able to define certain standards, certain performance requirements that are interoperability requirements exclusively for the physical access control or hands-free access. That I think sets apart UWB, and the adoption of UWB to enable a more seamless, secure access compared to other RF technologies (which originated in a different context, but then got adapted into the physical access world).

How is interoperability being addressed? It’s going to be key to market adoption.

Songukrishnasamy: I think interoperability and a robust ecosystem are really key for adoption of any new technologies. Without interoperability, we cannot achieve a consistent user experience across different devices, manufactured by different manufacturers and we cannot scale. And that’s why we set up the FiRa consortium with the help of industry leaders and technology providers to promote UWB and ensure interoperability. That really guarantees or at least gives assurance that the device that you buy can work with multiple mobile phones or other end point devices as technology evolves.

Dachs: Making sure you provide this unique and consistent experience is going to be key for the consumer. The other one is that across a broad ecosystem, industry leaders start deploying and manufacturing devices that have that capability. And that’s what we see right now happening in mobile and automotive.

Where are we in terms of standardization?

Dachs: I can quickly give three branches to standardization. IEEE is one. In the last two years, there were a lot of activities extending the original IEEE to wideband standard with security and also enhancements that allow better integrity and accuracy in ranging measurements. At the Car Connectivity Consortium specifically for the hands-free access use case, the standards are now in place with Digital Key Release, 3.0 specification. That will enable passive location aware keyless access. And then, together with HID, ASSA ABLOY and Samsung, we jointly initiated the FiRa initiative in 2019, which is now making sure that beyond the car access or car ecosystem we deliver on this interoperability promise.

FiRa now has more than 50 members. It focused immediately on the PHY and MAC technical requirements and specifications so that use cases could be built on top of the standards defined in the IEEE standard that was actually already finalized. And then it moved into starting to develop specifications for use cases and access was the first key focus area. More working groups are being put together now to address variety of use cases beyond access.

Market adoption

Once we have UWB in the phone and in certain things like door locks, what’s next, since you talk about seamless user experiences?

Songukrishnasamy: Because of its fine ranging capability, we believe it’ll enable many new location-based services, whether it is access or device-to-device communication in IoT applications, both in the consumer electronics space, as well as in industrial applications. That’s something we’re quite excited about because the potential of UWB technology in managing access to physical and digital places, things and identities are something fundamental to many of our offerings.

Dachs: To add to this, specific examples of where we see interest are in indoor navigation, real-time location of services in industrial environments, ticket validation for public transport services, complete hands-free mobile payment experiences where essentially you walk in a pay area to check out from your shopping experience; social distancing, virtual reality, gaming applications.

There really is a very broad range of interesting use cases out there. In the home, for instance, audio experiences can be improved by essentially having music following you from one room to the other.

What’s next for the UWB ecosystem?

Songukrishnasamy: With UWB starting from almost a clean sheet with few legacy issues to deal with, it’s going to be about how well we can define the standards, how well we can enable interoperability, how broadly we can build this ecosystem and that’s really the key. We are seeing the work in progress starting to happen as we speak. And that gives very high confidence for key players in this industry to join forces in creating a much more delightful user experience in their products, or offerings.

Secondly, I think there is an increasing awareness and also demand for security and data privacy. This technology (UWB) is going to enable some of those aspects or overcome some of the shortcomings in other RF technologies. The third one is ability to have versatile applications going from one place to other place in different devices and different endpoints. If we could create consistent user interactions, user experience, I think that would make the adoption much wider, much faster.

Dachs: To add to this, what makes me very confident that this is not just an experiment out there is the sheer interest we get across different industry verticals on what UWB can bring to them. It is getting endorsement from some really big companies out there – and at the end technologies, don’t reach scale unless some very big players invest. If you look at the brands out there in the automotive space, the ones that have been vocal about it, like Continental, BMW, Volkswagen, Bosch; in the mobile space, Apple, Samsung, Xiaomi; in the access space, ASSA ABLOY, HID and many others. These are not small players, they’re leaders in their industries. And the fact that they are working with other players in the industry to create this broader ecosystem is what gives me a lot of confidence here.

Listen to the full podcast, produced as part of the NXP Smarter World podcast, click here: “The Ultra-Wide Possibilities of Ultra-Wideband”.

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