From the newly-announced Note 20 Ultra from Samsung to Apple’s latest offerings: the iPhone 11 series (announced last year), we are starting to see Ultra Wideband (UWB) technology making its way to smartphones, with manufacturers (albeit, a couple, at the moment) beginning to implement it on their top-of-the-line offerings. In the case of Apple, it is AirDrop that the company claims to benefit the most from UWB, whereas, with Samsung, it is Nearby Share — Google’s equivalent to AirDrop — which the technology promises to improve the experience of, for wireless content sharing. But what exactly is Ultra Wideband technology, how does it work, and what are some of its applications? Answers to these and more in this explainer.
What is Ultra Wideband (UWB)?
UWB is a spatial awareness technology that aids smartphones in locating nearby devices effectively to establish connectivity and transfer content. It is, essentially, a protocol that is intended for use in short-range and uses radio technology to locate and communicate with devices in proximity. To do this, the technology leverages a large part of the radio frequency spectrum to utilize the very low power and high bandwidth radio waves to exchange data and information between devices. As a matter of fact, the name, ultra-wideband, comes from the protocol’s reliance on a relatively wide frequency range (3.1 to 10.6 GHz) with a high bandwidth (500 MHz).
Even though it is Apple who first implemented UWB on a smartphone with its iPhone 11 lineup (using the U1 chip) in 2019, the technology has been around for quite a few decades. And at large, has been subject to restrictions, initially, with the US military being the only authority possessing the right to use the technology. Eventually, years down the line, it was in 2002, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) authorized unlicensed use of UWB (in the frequency range between 3.1 to 10.6 GHz), that the technology started seeing implementations in telecommunication, radar, imaging, and similar fields.
Talking about the technology’s implementation in smartphones, among other applications, UWB can be used to help a device discover the nearby devices/objects in a small physical space to locate (or communicate with) them more accurately. With Apple’s iPhone 11 lineup, the technology is employed using the U1 chip, which aids the device to precisely detect other devices in proximity that are open to accepting content over AirDrop. Thus, making the discovery and communication between devices quick and hassle-free, and offering users the ability to simply point devices to discover and transfer content.
Much like Apple, with the newly-released Note 20 Ultra, Samsung is following the same tenet and building upon it to include the technology in a way that improves the experience of using Nearby Share — Google’s native built-in utility for wireless content sharing — by making device discovery and communication quick, accurate, and convenient.
How does Ultra Wideband (UWB) technology work?
To be able to discover and communicate with devices, Ultra Wideband technology involves the use of both a transmitter and a receiver. The process usually involves a UWB transmitter that leverages a large spectrum of radio waves and utilizes the waves with a high bandwidth (and very low power) to send pulses across in an area over small periodic time intervals. While this takes place, a receiver, on the other end, captures these pulses and translates them into data to perform further operations as need be. Furthermore, depending on the use-case scenario that UWB technology is put to use in, it can be modified and used accordingly.
When a similar communication takes place between two smartphones (equipped with UWB), the ranging is accomplished using Time of Flight (ToF) measurement, something that is used in RADAR (Radio Detection and Ranging). To put it simply, ToF is the amount of time it takes for a pulse to traverse a distance between two points. Since the radio waves used with UWB are very low power (and high bandwidth: 500 MHz), it is easier to transfer large amounts of pulses over at faster speeds. Thus, accounting for better real-time location accuracy.
Even though the high bandwidth of the employed wave is useful in relaying data over short distances, and its high frequency helps in holding large amounts of data, the same does not hold true for fairly large physical spaces that constitute a lot of obstacles like walls. Since, unlike Wi-Fi, which also uses radio waves, UWB can not penetrate signals through a wall effectively, and therefore, requires a clear Line of Sight (LOS) for better communication and discovery. Moreover, in some instances, there is a need for an external antenna system to boost the range, and in turn, the reception.
How is Ultra Wideband (UWB) different than Bluetooth and Wi-Fi?
Irrespective of what radio technology you talk about, be it UWB, Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth, each one of them can be used in real-time location systems. What this means is that these wireless technologies do offer the ability to help locate an object or discover other devices in its proximity. And can, therefore, be employed in a system depending on its requirements and application — albeit, their efficacy is something that differentiates them largely.
Wi-Fi is one of the most common and widely adopted wireless network protocol for connectivity. It is primarily used for networking and internet access. Different versions of Wi-Fi offer different range and speed, with 2.4GHz and 5GHz being the prominent bands in use. Unlike UWB, Wi-Fi uses a narrow frequency band that allows for a much lower transmission rate, which is one of its biggest disadvantages over UWB. Moreover, since the wavebands have a high absorption rate, they require a clear LOS to offer better connectivity. The key metric used to determine the quality of a connection is usually its signal strength, which works in the case of an internet connection, but not so when it comes to discoverability. And this is exactly what limits Wi-Fi from being a preferred protocol for discovering and locating nearby objects.
Much like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth also relies on waves in the narrow frequency band, and therefore, does not offer the efficacy with which its competitor, UWB, broadcasts pulses. Similarly, when it comes to discovering nearby objects, Bluetooth uses signal strength as a metric of determining the signal quality, which, as we already mentioned, is not the most effective way to identify the accurate location of an object in proximity. And therefore, like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth also falls behind UWB when it comes to discovering nearby objects and devices.
What are some applications of Ultra Wideband (UWB)?
With the technology possessing the ability to accurately discover nearby devices and transfer content wirelessly in a quick and hassle-free manner, there are numerous use-cases scenarios where UWB can prove to be beneficial. And, in some cases, even better than the protocols currently in use.
Aside from smartphones, where the technology aids with content sharing or can help determine/locate other devices in proximity, UWB can be used in augmented reality (AR), navigation, mobile payments, vehicle access, indoor navigation, asset tracking, automotive industry, medical applications, and various other purposes.
What does Ultra Wideband (UWB) technology hold for the future?
As we can see with the latest Samsung offering, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, the company is implementing UWB on the device to offer better functionality with Nearby Share. Of course, this is just one application that the company has highlighted to leverage the UWB technology as of now. And there are probably a bunch of other use-case scenarios that the same can be put to use. Similarly, Apple’s adoption for the same with its iPhone 11 lineup can also open the possibilities for other applications taking advantage of the accurate position data, to provide better functionality (and even new functionalities) once the developers get complete access to the U1 chip and start leveraging its power.
Similarly, we can also see asset tracking companies using UWB to allow users to accurately track their belongings and have better control over the same. Not to mention, a few use-case scenarios from the applications section, such as medical field: which can offer better imaging, patient tracking, and better control over autonomous surgery; automotive industry: which can get better at detection nearby objects and improve the autonomous driving experience while also making it safe; the application prospect and scope of use for UWB is immensely wide, and we can hope to see better of it in the coming years across different industries.