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Location Services Drive UWB’s Return

March 10, 2020

Author: Bob Wheeler

What do real estate and ultrawideband (UWB) radios have in common? Location, location, location. High-accuracy location is propelling the resurgence of UWB technology after a decade in near hibernation. Apple quietly integrated a UWB chip, dubbed the U1, in last year’s iPhone 11. Shortly after, NXP announced UWB chips using technology it acquired in 2003; they target new automotive applications. In February, Qorvo acquired privately held Decawave, a UWB pioneer founded way back in 2004.

At that time, Intel and others promoted UWB as a high-bandwidth connection for short-range data transfers between PCs, televisions, and other multimedia devices. After a classic boom-and-bust investment cycle, the technology found a niche in industrial real-time location services (RTLS). Using a UWB sensor network, RTLS can track assets carrying UWB tags on a factory floor to about 10cm accuracy. Apple has disclosed only its AirDrop enhancements based on UWB, but it could also employ UWB in two-factor authentication. Meanwhile, NXP is working with BMW and Volkswagen on next-generation keyless-entry systems; UWB’s location accuracy can eliminate the relay attacks used to defeat conventional systems.

Despite an IEEE standard, UWB-chip vendors have yet to demonstrate interoperability. Industry consortia are creating compliance and certification programs as well as influencing worldwide regulatory bodies. Apple, however, instantly propelled UWB into a high-volume technology, which should motivate these industry efforts.

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