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What is ultra-wideband, and how does it work?

Like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, ultra-wideband (UWB) is a short-range, wireless communication protocol that operates through radio waves. But unlike its counterparts, it operates at very high frequencies — a broad spectrum of GHz frequencies — and can be used to capture highly accurate spatial and directional data.

Think of UWB as a continuously scanning radar that can precisely lock onto an object, discover its location and communicate with it.

UWB is set to unlock a whole range of new consumer and enterprise applications. It has already been incorporated in Samsung’s new Galaxy Note20 Ultra smartphone and is likely to feature on a wider array of computing devices and internet of things (IoT) peripherals in 2021 and beyond.

How does UWB work?

Once a UWB-enabled device like a smartphone, smartwatch, smart key or tile is near another UWB device, the devices start “ranging.” Ranging refers to calculating the time of flight (ToF) between devices: the roundtrip time of challenge/response packets.

Galaxy Note20 user sending video to another via UWB

Using larger channel bandwidth (500MHz) with short pulses (2 nanoseconds each), UWB achieves greater accuracy. The UWB positioning process instantaneously tracks the device’s movements in real-time. In doing so, UWB-enabled devices can understand both motion and relative position.

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According to NXP, which produced the UWB chipset featured in the Galaxy Note20 Ultra, UWB delivers greater accuracy in line-of-site (LoS) and strong localization in non-line-of-sight (nLoS) scenarios — and is capable of managing environments in which numerous walls, people and other obstacles would typically block these signals. Using angle-of-arrival (AoA) technology, the real-time accuracy of UWB measurements provides highly precise device location services at the centimeter level. Not only that, UWB devices can also determine whether an object is stationary, moving closer or moving away.

For example, UWB-enabled systems know if you’re approaching a locked door and can determine if you’re inside or outside the doorway. They can also decide whether the lock should be engaged when you reach a specific position. In a real-world scenario, UWB could open the garage as your car approaches and unlock the door to your house as you near the entryway.

UWB sensor technology on door

How is UWB different from Wi-Fi and Bluetooth?

When we think about wireless connectivity technology, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi usually come to mind. But these technologies lack the accuracy, positioning capabilities and radio frequency security available with UWB. Most wireless connectivity technologies can technically provide ranging, but UWB’s performance is far superior.

UWB also operates in a separate section of the radio spectrum, away from congested bands clustered around 2.4GHz. What’s more, UWB can coexist with other popular wireless technologies like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Near Field Communication (NFC).

One of UWB’s most significant advantages is the added portion of the physical layer (PHY) used to send and receive data packets. With this layer, currently being specified in IEEE 802.15.4z, a critical security extension not available in other technologies can be leveraged, allowing for security techniques such as cryptography and random number generation that deter attackers from accessing UWB communications.

How can the enterprise leverage UWB technology?

With its fine precision, fast transmission and high reliability, UWB technology is poised to help companies locate people and objects moving in all sorts of environments and processes.

One highly relevant use case in today’s workforce is social distancing. As organizations strategize how to get back to business safely and securely, they also need to consider physical distancing guidelines. With UWB technology, a wearable sensor could alert an employee when they get too close to someone.

For any organization involved in manufacturing, UWB could be an essential part of digitizing production and logistics. Now, people and items don’t need to be stationary to be recorded; they can also be mobile. UWB could help seamlessly digitize warehouses, shop floors and process chains, stabilizing internal processes and optimizing productivity.

What can we expect from UWB in the future?

UWB is a new technology, and the companies working on it are just getting started. The FiRa Consortium, of which Samsung is a member, has been focused on promoting adoption of UWB technology and advancing updates to the UWB standards and certification programs to ensure interoperability.

With Samsung’s Galaxy Note20 Ultra, there are already a few exciting applications that leverage UWB. For example, the new Nearby Share app for device-to-device file transfers will be enhanced through the use of UWB. By simply pointing your phone at other UWB-equipped devices, Nearby Share automatically lists that device at the top of your sharing panel.

During the recent Unpacked event, Samsung also discussed the integration of UWB into a new SmartThings Find application. Using augmented reality (AR) and intuitive directions, you’ll be able to precisely locate other UWB-equipped things and devices.

Galaxy Note20 Ultra finding another nearby device via UWB

Samsung is also teaming up with partners to turn your UWB-enabled phone into a digital key and are already working with major global automakers and access solution providers like ASSA ABLOY to unlock these future of possibilities.

UWB’s potential is vast, and there’s much to look forward to, even if many enterprise use cases are a few years away.

One thing’s for certain: UWB is poised to change the way we live and work.

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Mark Stone

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Mark Stone

Mark Stone is a content marketing writer with over a decade of experience covering technology, business, and cybersecurity. Earlier in his career, he was a cybersecurity analyst in the public sector. He is a regular contributor to Forbes BrandVoice and helps large tech companies with thought leadership. He lives in Kelowna, BC with his wife and two black cats.

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