The resurgence of ultra-wideband technology, UWB

There is an old, though unknown, technology that in recent years is reaching a great prominence. We refer to the Ultra Wide Band (UWB). At TST we are using it extensively in research aimed at providing high-precision positioning solutions for indoor and outdoor use.

It was in September last year (2019) that the term UWB began to become popular following the introduction of the iPhone 11 Pro, the first smartphone to incorporate a chip with this wireless technology. Suddenly, the specialized press and the technological world dusted off this ignored technology that is already called to play a very important role in the field of geolocation, smart home, security or augmented reality.

At TST we are confident in the potential of this technology to create applications that include the use of ultra-broadband. An example of this is the work being developed in the framework of the European project SECREDAS, whose main objective is to increase safety conditions in autonomous cars and about whose outdoor tests we published a review a few dates ago. Another example of this confidence is the MERLIN project, which will design and prototype a more accurate distance measurement system than those currently on the market.

UWB radio frequency technology is similar to WiFi or Bluetooth. That is, its capacity is based on the rapid transmission of data between devices in close proximity to each other. But it is much more effective in determining the location of objects in close proximity. It uses short pulse radio waves in a frequency spectrum ranging from 3.1 to 10.5 GHz. It’s like very short-range radar: it can track and provide a precise location with errors of less than 10 centimetres, outdoors and indoors. In addition, its signals can easily pass through the human body or building walls.

Ultra-wideband is becoming popular because it is much faster than Bluetooth, cheaper, uses less energy and is safer. It is currently mainly used in industrial environments, for example, to track forklifts in warehouses or factories. It is also being explored as a safer alternative to wireless car keys or even for tracking animals on farms.

The fact that Apple has included a UWB chip in its latest phone indicates, according to analysts, that the company is exploring its intensive use in the smart home environment to control locks, thermostats, appliances or even pets.

A little bit of history

To know the history of UWB technology we would have to go back to the end of the 19th century when Marconi developed the Spark-Gap (short electric pulse) transmitter for wireless communication. In 1920, UWB signals were banned for commercial use and restricted to military applications, but by the end of the 20th century, this technology began to attract the attention of the scientific community. It was in 2002 that the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) published the first UWB regulations that allowed unlicensed use of the assigned spectrum. However, the power limit allowed was set very low to avoid interference with other technologies such as WiFi, Bluetooth, etc.