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NXP and Samsung back latest rebirth of UltraWideBand

UltraWideBand (UWB) technology is best remembered for a damaging battle, over a decade ago, between two factions aiming to establish it as a standard for wireless personal area networks (WPANs). Then, groups led by Freescale and Intel respectively failed to compromise and ended up condemning UWB to the back burner in the consumer wireless space. But the core technology has still been under development for more specialized and industrial applications, as well as remaining at the heart of one of the 802.15.4 family of IEEE standards for WPAN (15.4a).

Firms like Ireland’s Decawave have used UWB for ultra-precise positioning and tracking, for applications like search and rescue, and now a new consortium has been launched targeting similar sectors. The FiRa (Fine Ranging) Consortium is targeting services that require extremely accurate location awareness, and aims to support interoperability across a whole ecosystem of chips, devices and service infrastructure, including in the services layer which is not touched by IEEE work.

The group has four founding sponsors – NXP, Samsung, Bosch and the ASSA ABLOY Group; and Sony Imaging Products is one of the early recruits, as well as the Telecommunications Technology Association (TTA). These companies aim to develop a standard based on the IEEE’s profiles, but defining mechanisms that are out of scope of the IEEE standard, based on specific use cases.

The members are keen to stress that UWB did not fail last time around because it was a poor technology, but because it was pushed into markets for relatively high data rate WPANs, which brought it up against WiFi and even Bluetooth. This time, they are leaving mass markets for WPAN to better backed technologies like Bluetooth and ZigBee and playing to its strengths.

The new generation of UWB is far closer to the Freescale model in that earlier feud – a design tied to 802.15.4 at the PHY level and to impulse technology – rather than the Intel approach of using OFDM and boosting data rates. The IEEE now specifies its 15.4a standard as based on 2-nanosecond pulses with time of flight and angle of arrival measurements; and there is a security extension being specified (802.15.4z). This makes it a sensing, not a communications, technology, with greater accuracy than Bluetooth and higher security.

Applications envisaged include the addition of spatial context capability to access control, location-based services, and device-to-device services. It also has greater robustness for challenging environments.

“As an industry consortium, we believe UWB technology can transform the way people experience connectivity, and we’re committed to the widespread adoption of interoperable UWB technologies,” said Charlie Zhang, chair of the FiRa Consortium and VP of engineering at Samsung Electronics.

Charles Dachs, vice-chair of the Consortium and general manager of secure embedded transactions at NXP, told EETimes the group is also talking to the Car Connectivity Consortium about car access.

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