Apple appears to have kick-started development and implementation of the Ultra WideBand standard first deployed in a mass market product in iPhone 11 — and now available in smartphones from Apple and other manufacturers.
This technological deployment is beginning to transform into new business cases, so what do we have so far?
In the heat of the sun
Digitimes tells us interest in the standard is increasing fast. It also details some of the big names to have recently joined the UWB Alliance, a roster which does not at this point include Apple.
UWB is a very low-power wireless technology. It transmits data across a wide frequency of bands (from 500MHz up to several gigahertz) at a range of around 100 meters. The use of wide frequency bands means it passes through walls far more reliably than Bluetooth or Wi-Fi can achieve.
The highly secure standard is really good at figuring out proximity, location, and because of the frequency it operates on it can send out information for use in its various deployments through walls at much better rate of success than Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. This also makes it useful for short range data transfer between devices.
How Apple is using the tech
At present, Apple primarily uses the UWB standard (in the form of its U1 chip) for spatial awareness, so devices equipped with it can find other devices using the same tech. This manifests itself in AirDrop, HomePod mini and Apple’s CarKey system. It is also expected to make some use of the tech in its anticipated Find My AirTags devices, which will (we think) use Bluetooth and UWB to create a framework for finding items such as lost keys and spectacles. (So long as they have one of these tags connected to them).
While Apple isn’t a UWB Member it is a member of the Car Connectivity Consortium, a group including members from across the vehicle manufacturing supply chain interested in using UWB to create systems using smartphones to open, lock and start cars. Apple uses this for its Car Key system, which lets users open their vehicles as they approach them, rather than requiring the iPhone or Apple Watch to be held close to the lock. By extension, this model extends to a world in which doors open automatically as authorized users get close to them, thanks to UWB.
But new business cases are also emerging:
The CCC is engaged in a project called Car Data. The idea here iOS to build an ecosystem to support data-driven solutions, such as pay how you drive insurance, road monitoring and fleet management. It’s considered to be the successor to the open MirrorLink standard, used to connect apps between phones and cars.
NXP Semiconductors is building out an ecosystem of UWB components for multiple markets, including smart homes. In homes, the company imagines automated home systems that follow owners between rooms, opening and unlocking doors, setting ‘scenes’ and performing other tasks. The idea extends to lost item tracking.
These ideas are useful in homes but should also be of use in any automated environment. Offices, hospitals, schools, manufacturing and distribution centers may all be improved through UWB-based presence and automation tools. The standard is highly accurate, which may enable location based and M2M applications we haven’t yet imagined, particularly as the data informs spatial awareness systems.
That might mean smart sensors in mass transit to help you navigate to your route for you (and more, see below), but may also be of use in heavily automated warehousing and distribution systems. UWB is also situationally aware, so it can be of use in collision detection and industrial equipment handling systems.
The notion of location, identity and proximity marries quite well to Apple’s App Clips, at least conceptually. App Clips let you access partial features of an app without downloading the entire package. Where available these are usually provided via App Clip or QR codes or NFC tags, and can also be launched from within apps. You may come across them when renting a scooter or buying a coffee, for example.
Such access to cut-down versions of apps seems to lend itself well to UWB, in the sense that you may be presented with the chance to use apps on your device as you travel, shop or wander through the retail warehouse. There are also AR applications: the proximity awareness inherent to UWB lends itself to indoor mapping tools to guide you round museums, supermarkets, or shopping malls.
The UWB Alliance website describes Real Time Locating Systems (RTLS) as a tool that will save medical staff time by helping them quickly find patients and equipment, while the radar sensors of the tech may become useful as tools to remotely measure heart rate and respiration without device contact. Such systems are being deployed in smart buildings, as baby monitors and to help senior citizens live more independently as fall detection systems.
On the farm
Incredible accuracy and precise location detection is pretty important when you lose your keys or spectacles, but becomes essential for agriculturalists searching for accurate, affordable low power systems for livestock tracking and smart health monitoring tools.
CES saw Taiwanese start-up iWavenology demonstrate a device it calls iDistance, designed to help people maintain social distance to help stop the spread of COVID-19. This uses UWB to sense when someone gets too close when it will alert the wearer. It can process up to 50 nearby people each second. The company has also developed UWB-based products for overhead drone detection, indoor positioning and a system that uses UWB to identify a person a robot should follow – a pram may follow the parent, a warehousing trolley may follow the picker or a defibrillator may know which nurse it should travel to and on which floor it will find them.
On the tracks
Humatics developed a UWB-based navigation system for trains in New York in 2019. The system is basically designed to provide accurate and immediate positioning of trains in tunnels across the transit system. The idea being that the accuracy of the location data generated by the technology means transit management can run more trains more efficiently on the track, which means travellers get to their destination a little faster.
While we don’t yet understand Apple’s greater plans for use of the technology across its devices, the fact it continues to introduce UWB chips inside its biggest-selling product (iPhone) shows the company’s dedication to creating an ecosystem in which at least some of the above business propositions can begin to emerge.
So, while at present, Apple’s adventures in UWB deployment are a case of ‘watch this space’, the emerging plethora of business usage scenarios that are slowly manifesting themselves seem to describe an enterprise opportunity.