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28 March 2023

Ultra Wide Band marches on to enable advanced industrial 5G

By Luc Braun

Samsung last week announced its new UWB (Ultra-wideband) Exynos Connect U100 chipset enabling far more precise determination of distance and position than is possible with GPS or conventional cellular. The chipset is optimized for use in mobile, IoT and automotive devices where precise distance and positioning information are required now. However, Samsung also has an eye on future consumer applications in navigation and the smart home where there is potential for automated operation of functions such as lighting as users move around the building.

Providing a clear advantage over current cellular positioning standard limits of around 30cm, Samsung claims single-digit centimeter accuracy with the U100 chip, with potential for sub 1 cm resolution.  At the same time, the South Korean technology and electronics giant has also unveiled its Exynos Connect brand to consolidate a wide array of its short-range wireless communications products under a single umbrella. UWB, alongside Bluetooth and WiFi-based components, will be included in Exynos Connect.  The first Exynos Connect U100 unites RF, baseband, embedded Flash memory and power management into a single, compact chip aimed at applications requiring very compact form factor.  The U100 also has a power-saving mode extending device battery life, making it a candidate for Low Power WAN (LPWAN) IoT devices.

Security features include a scrambled timestamp sequence (STS) function and a secure hardware encryption engine. STS functions protect the integrity of timestamp data in UWB transmissions using an array of cryptographic techniques. This is important, as these timestamps help calculate positioning and ranging information. As a result, STS makes interception and relay attacks on UWB devices more difficult.

Time of arrival is combined with Angle of arrival (AoA) measurements as the second pillar of UWB ranging measurement. A 5° AoA precision combines with Time of arrival measurements to bring down the U100’s accuracy to the mentioned single-digit centimeter scale.

“Our Exynos Connect U100 combines sophisticated ranging and positioning capabilities with strong security to enable hyper-connectivity between people and everyday objects, fueling a range of new applications in positioning and location tracking,” said Joonsuk Kim, Executive Vice President of the Connectivity Development Team at Samsung Electronics.

UWB technology has been floating around the wireless space in various iterations since the beginning of the 21st century, though widespread commercial success has so far eluded the protocol. Prominent in the public space during the UWB wars between Intel and Motorola and Freescale around 2005, the technology largely fell by the wayside as a result of vendor and carrier politics, and inferior performance compared to WiFi and Bluetooth.

In contrast to narrowband technology over narrow frequency carriers, UWB devices communicate via low-power, short-range radio pulses across a wider bandwidth up to 500MHz.

Since its inception, UWB had been tipped for real-time location (RTL) and micro-location applications, but it has taken until now to make an impact in the cellular mainstream. This is partly a result of improved performance and partly because many emerging 5G industrial use cases now call for precise positioning and ranging data.

While 3GPP standards have made some progress in the past, 5G standards-based positioning was up in the double-digits cms, with even sub-meter precision being the limit of accuracy. Indoor positioning has been a further weakness of current cellular technology, with poor indoor connectivity resulting in ranging not being possible at the desired speeds or accuracy.

Among Industry 4.0 and IoT applications where precise positioning is advanced manufacturing process control, UAVs (Unattended Automated Vehicles),  and robotics. It will help bring on automated, flexible and modular assembly lines.

Outside the industrial sector there is also call for reliable, low-power positioning in asset tracking, healthcare, logistics, and agriculture. Other verticals seek to make use of the improved situational awareness UWB technology affords, smart keys being an example. There are also location-based secure payment systems, obstruction detection for vehicles, and no-contact vital sign monitoring through UWB radar capabilities. The latter could find application in security, baby monitors, or senior-citizen fall detection.

The two most important industry associations for UWB technology are the FiRa (Fine Ranging) consortium and UWB Alliance, though the two groups are closely aligned and coordinate activities. As part of a 2020 liaison agreement, the UWB Alliance agreed to focus on matters arising from the promotion and safeguarding of UWB technology, and advancing updates of UWB rules in the US and the European Union (EU). FiRa on the other hand, picked standards development, interoperability, and certification as its main areas of focus.

Notable UWB Alliance members include German engineering and technology company Bosh, car manufacturer Kia, and also as recently featured in Wireless Watch Humatics, a micro-location specialist that claims to have reached sub-cm precision for its “Milo” UWB robotics system.

The FiRa Consortium boasts heavyweights such as Apple, Cisco, Google, NXP, Qualcomm, Samsung, Thales, Intel, Meta, Sony, Microsoft, LG, Keysight Technologies, Motorola, and Ceva. Apple chip supplier Qorvo is another notable member, having bought Decawave, one of the last UWB specialists, in February 2020 for $400m, in a move that was interpreted as an embracement of UWB technology. This signaled that Apple was serious about its use in devices.

Apple’s U1 UWB chip was first included in the iPhone 11, launched in late 2019, though it was also included in the Apple Watch series 6, HomePod Mini and the charging cases for AirPods Pro (Second generation onwards).

In April 2021, UWB chips also enabled Apple’s notorious AirTag tracking tags. The product provoked an avalanche of negative headlines and attracted a series of lawsuits alleging massive violations of privacy rights. Even if AirTags are now in disrepute, the episode was a win for UWB, which, in a way proved too capable a technology.

Similarly, Samsung moved to include UWB in its devices from August 2020 onwards. Google Pixel phones 6 and 7 also include UWB functionality, ironically enabled by Qorvo chips, traditionally part of the Apple ecosystem.

Until now, Samsung has relied on NXP’s SR100T UWB chipset, though that is set to change with the Exynos Connect U100. Apple had been enthusiastic about UWB for longer than Samsung, developing its own SoC silicon with the Apple U1. Samsung was caught off-guard when Apple first began to push UWB into devices, displacing NFC-based technology, which had been popularized through the Google Pay and Apple Pay payment systems. The NXP chips served as a convenient stopgap measure for Samsung, though this relationship will surely wind down as its own UWB chip capacity increases.