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UWB Finding a Place in the RTLS Market

UWB-based systems account for a small segment of the RTLS market, but vendors and analysts say awareness and implementations are growing. UWB RTLS is also attracting venture funding, which has led to new product releases and growing enthusiasm.
Dec 05, 2007This article was originally published by RFID Update.

December 5, 2007—Finding a needle in a haystack isn't considered a challenge, at least not by those familiar with ultra-wideband (UWB) real-time location systems (RTLS). UWB differs from traditional RTLS technologies primarily by the frequencies it uses and the precision it provides -- one vendor says its systems can locate tagged objects within 15 centimeters.

"There is no technology like UWB for highly accurate RTLS tracking," Raghu Das told RFID Update. Das is a leading authority on the UWB RTLS market and is CEO of IDTechEx, which produces research and events in the RFID and RTLS industries. "We think it's quite exciting."

The overwhelming majority of currently deployed RTLS systems use 433 MHz or WiFi technology, with location accuracy typically expressed in meters.

The UWB market is very young and small, with few commercial products and no standards to support interoperability among vendors. Despite these obstacles, UWB RTLS is seen as a viable, growing technology, primarily because it provides highly accurate location data and works effectively indoors or out.

Current and potential uses for UWB RTLS include locating people in the event of a disaster or evacuation, industrial work-in-process tracking, asset tracking, crowd flow analysis in retail and other settings, and location-based services.

"We are seeing all the traditional RTLS software providers coming to us to do pilots so their solutions can support UWB technology," Greg Clawson, VP of sales and marketing at UWB RTLS developer Time Domain, told RFID Update.

"We're having a lot of success right now because people realize if you want to do real-time, very accurate location tracking, you have to have UWB," Charles Sturman, VP of marketing at Ubisense, told RFID Update. Ubisense and Time Domain are considered the leading UWB RTLS providers, and the field is small.

UWB is a niche market within RTLS that is not well known and less well understood. Vendors say prospects tend to equate RTLS technology with the WiFi version, and don't realize there are differences between the WiFi, UWB, and 433 MHz varieties (the latter offered by companies like RF Code and Zebra Technologies' WhereNet).

About half of Time Domain's customers originally installed WiFi RTLS systems but wanted to add more features or precision than the technology could support, according to Clawson. Now that GPS functionality is commonplace in automotive and personal navigation systems, it has created a false sense of what RTLS can do, according to Time Domain's CTO, Adrian Jennings.

"At the enterprise level, there's probably been a false expectation set by GPS," Jennings said.

Confusion between RFID and RTLS can also lead to unrealistic expectations, or systems that don't provide the intended functionality. "If people aren't aware of their technology options, they'll try to stretch the identification function that RFID performs to do location," said Sturman.

"There's a lot of education that needs to be done," said Clawson.

Perceptions aside, UWB adoption is also limited by the fact that the technology costs more than WiFi RTLS and has not been standardized, which limits competition.

"One thing WiFi has that UWB doesn't is standards-based technology," said Jennings. He said a UWB RTLS standard could be in place within a few years, though nothing is imminent.

Das of IDTechEx thinks the higher costs associated with UWB RTLS are perceived as more of a problem than they actually are. "Tags are typically only 20 to 30 percent of the cost to implement a UWB system," he said. "The most important things to reducing the implementation cost are getting the software and reader costs down. If a tag costs $60, but you use it for five years, what is the cost per use?"

An Israeli company, SandLinks, is developing a low-cost UWB RTLS chip that could dramatically reduce the cost of equipment, according to Das, who notes the company is tightlipped about its efforts. Virtually no information is available on the SandLinks website.

Despite the small, proprietary nature of the UWB RTLS segment, vendors, analysts, and investors are confident in its viability. Time Domain recently received $25 million in venture funding, which it used to roll out its first commercial product line, announced this week (see Time Domain to Release UWB-based RTLS Products). Ubisense scored $3 million in venture funding last year (see RTLS Provider Ubisense Lands $3M Funding), and SandLinks $5 million (see announcement).

Clawson of Time Domain thinks the UWB segment will outpace WiFi in its growth percentage (but not in total revenue) during the next two to three years. That would be quite an accomplishment; research firm ABI Research has projected the WiFi RTLS industry will grow 70 percent annually for the next five years (see Analyst: Strong Growth Ahead for WiFi-RTLS).

Das wouldn't be surprised if the nascent market doubled in size. "UWB has a lot of competition, but it has a very strong niche," Das said. "We think UWB RTLS has a very bright future."
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