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The Past, Present, and Future of Ultra-Wideband Technology

Dec. 28, 2022
UWB can (and will) provide faster data rates and enhanced security for 5G applications.

What you’ll learn:

  • The fundamentals of Ultra-Wideband.
  • The origin, present, and future of UWB technology.
  • How UWB can solve speed, power, and latency issues that narrow-band signals have in connecting device.

In a world soon to be saturated with 5G and the industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), everything from industrial sensors and inventory monitoring systems to medical wearables and smartphones will be connected to a network—and most of them already are. Parents can keep track of their kids' whereabouts, and doctors can keep receiving updates from their patients' pacemakers through apps on their respective phones. At the same time, commercial retailers can monitor and reroute deliveries through GPS tracking systems in their fleet vehicles. This connectivity and data transference strains existing signal protocols like Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth, potentially creating lag time in uploading/downloading and possibly significant signal interference.

With these issues anticipated to only grow as the size of networks expand and the number of connected devices proliferates, developers have been investigating different ways to wirelessly connect devices/computers/vehicles to large mesh networks—and, with regulatory help, they've found one. Ultra-wideband (UWB), a signal protocol that has been restricted to public and military implementations since the early 20th century, has been repurposed for commercial use to augment Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in the quest for global connectivity. 

 UWB technically refers to any signal equal to or greater than 500 MHz (with a fractional bandwidth >20%). Still, UWB typically operates between approximately 3.0 GHz to 10.5 GHz, enabling it to transfer significantly more data and making it less susceptible to signal interference than narrowband signals. UWB is also less costly and more energy-efficient than Bluetooth, and it’s an appealing alternative in short-range transmission scenarios, such as within an office building or manufacturing facility. This article will examine UWB's past, present, and future and determine where it will fit into the world of 5G connectivity.

The Origins of Ultra-Wideband

The genesis of UWB can be traced back to the first radio-signal devices that utilized spark-gap transmitters to communicate wirelessly. These devices could transmit sound through short electrical impulses over short distances, eventually leading to radio-wave transmission. In its infancy, UWB sent old-fashioned telegraph signals over large distances, such as messages to ships at sea. As the technology evolved, UWB’s higher frequency ranges made it an optimal method of transmitting large amounts of data, such as images or video files, over shorter distances.

UWB might have become the original wireless communication standard, but it was outlawed for commercial use in 1920, becoming a proprietary protocol for classified government and military implementations. UWB remained out of bounds for public use until 2002, when the Federal Communications Commission in the US opened it back up for commercial applications.

Since then, UWB has propagated into various technologies, including radar and location/positioning systems, medical devices and wearables, and consumer electronics. Apple included UWB tech in the iPhone 11 (released in 2019), enabling far more accurate positioning and ranging capabilities than previous iterations. 

Where Ultra-Wideband is Now

The ongoing transition to 5G has been an inflection point in the adoption of UWB into networking and communication technology. UWB signals are transmitted in short, quick pulses (measured in picoseconds) like the spark-gap transmitters of old or in RF carrier waves.

Data transferred in pulses is transmitted by alternately turning the signal on and off—as lighthouses used to communicate with ships off the coast by flashing signals in Morse code. It may require over a hundred pulses to transmit a single bit of data, but the high rate of speed at which the bits are transmitted (each pulse lasts fewer than 1.5 ns) enables data rates of up to 27 Mb/s.

Carrier waves can also be created by modulating the signal to simulate an RF wave. UWB can transmit data over multiple frequencies simultaneously and achieve much higher data rates than other wireless technologies. Implementing UWB with 5G networks can provide customers with faster upload/download speeds and greater bandwidth. 

UWB is also an optimal solution for real-time tracking and positioning applications, whether in consumer electronics (like the iPhone) to manage inventory or determine the location of products, or in equipment within a factory/manufacturing setting (Fig. 1). UWB-enabled devices come equipped with multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) antennas that fit into devices as small as smartphones or watches. When two UWB-enabled devices are close enough to connect, the devices begin "ranging," or ascertaining their respective locations and distance from one another through a "time of flight" determination.

By sending a pulse from one device to another and measuring the time it takes the pulse to complete its journey, the two devices can determine their exact locations relative to one another. This is especially advantageous in indoor settings where GPS isn’t always as functional, and Wi-Fi can struggle to break through solid objects and surfaces. If you're the type who's always misplacing their phone or who can never find the TV remote, UWB can pinpoint their respective locations in your home within inches.

Due to its short transmission period and small packet size, UWB is also found in applications that require lower latency and faster system response times, like gaming and training simulations. UWB’s low spectral density also helps prevent signal interference and makes UWB signals very difficult to detect, providing more security for data transmission. The additional security UWB provides is already being incorporated into digital car keys. Companies like BMW and Tesla are reportedly developing digital car keys that implement UWB for their vehicles to reduce incidents of signal relay theft from key fobs that transmit traditional radio signals. 

Where Can UWB Go from Here?

We've covered UWB's past and present—now, let's peek into its future. One of UWB’s most apparent potential use cases is in applications requiring high data-transfer rates, such as real-time video streaming. Security camera and traffic camera networks can provide much higher-quality video using UWB than other wireless communication protocols and reduce latency and streaming delays (like buffering).

UWB's lower latency also makes it a good potential fit for vehicular automated driving system cameras to avoid collisions with other moving vehicles. Automobiles with automated driving systems can almost instantly share locations and speed/directional vectors. This kind of data-sharing between vehicles can also improve overall traffic flow and fuel efficiency by suggesting alternate routes to avoid delays.

Sharing data between vehicles and general infrastructure is another potential benefit. Ever been stuck driving around the big city on the weekend and can't find a place to park? Imagine a network of parking lots and garages that can communicate to motorists in real time where open parking spots are available. You may never have to circle the same three-block radius looking for a parking spot again.

The enhanced safety and convenience UWB can provide doesn't just apply to transportation. Personal medical devices can utilize UWB to create a personal wireless area network around a patient that collects and shares information with a central application. A patient’s heart monitor can communicate with their smartwatch or smartphone to collect medical data and provide their doctors with real-time updates on their heartbeat, blood pressure, etc. Monitoring arrhythmias and other heart-related issues in real-time can significantly impact diagnosing—and even predict—cardiac events as early as possible.

UWB implementations with health benefits won’t necessarily be limited to serious medical conditions, either. Fitness monitors and some smartwatches have built-in health monitoring applications that can receive and store data on a user's heart rate, body temperature, blood oxygenation levels, and more. A lifetime's worth of that kind of information, coupled with algorithms that consider a user's medical history, could have enormous predictive value in preemptively diagnosing and treating a wide range of medical ailments, including cancer.

Realizing the benefits of personal wireless area networks will require larger area mesh networks and large numbers of mobile connected devices sending and receiving data almost constantly (Fig. 2). Connected devices and vehicles will be able to reduce communication latency by sharing data directly between devices instead of through a central hub. Instead of checking for traffic information on the radio or the traffic app on your phone, your vehicle will communicate in real-time with other automobiles on the road. Commercial fleets won't have to check in with a human dispatcher to provide and receive delivery updates; their vehicles will plan their optimal routes using data collected from other vehicles in their network.

Algorithms will help find the most power-efficient and lowest latency pathways for data transmission, like how electrical current flows through a resistance network, finding the path of least resistance as the resistance increases or decreases. In a network of connected devices often in motion, optimizing data transference while reducing signal interference will be key factors. UWB can provide greater bandwidth and signal security than Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Conclusion

Although UWB isn't exactly new, its potential in the IIoT and the 5G-connected world is still being investigated. A world of connected devices and vehicles will require a lot of bandwidth, possibly more than existing narrowband signal protocols can handle. UWB can provide greater bandwidth and faster upload/download speeds than Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth while coexisting alongside them—because they operate on different frequencies.

With lower signal power, UWB signals don’t interfere with each other or their narrowband counterparts. UWB signals are also more challenging to detect and hack into than Wi-Fi or Bluetooth transmissions, providing enhanced data-transmission security. By implementing UWB alongside narrowband signals, a world of connected devices sending invisible streams of data to and from one could become a reality.

Major tech conglomerates have already begun incorporating UWB technology into consumer electronic devices, and it’s currently being implemented in industrial inventory monitoring and tracking applications. UWB is a significantly better option than narrowband signals in tracking and location applications—it can provide much greater specificity regarding time and location than applications using narrowband signals.

Knowing that an airplane has landed safely on the ground is one thing but knowing exactly where it is on the tarmac relative to other aircraft and ground support vehicles could prevent serious injury or equipment damage. Receiving that kind of data in real time could allow planes to effectively land and park themselves, much like self-driving cars. UWB has the distinction of being both the oldest and newest signal protocol on the scene, and it still has a mountain to climb to catch up to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in the 5G realm—but, given its inherent benefits, it probably won’t take long. 

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