New Consortium to Spread UWB Adoption and Standardize Security

A handful of technology companies have created the FiRa Consortium to develop a standard for UWB security, in order to boost the development of interoperable deployments using what the group calls fine ranging and positioning capabilities.
Published: September 4, 2019

A group of technology companies have launched an organization known as the FIRa Consortium to promote the growth of ultra-wideband (UWB) technology and create security standards for seamless, interoperable deployments. Consortium working groups have begun the planning process to create a set of security-based standards that will ensure UWB transmissions are not intercepted, and to help further build opportunities for UWB for access control, asset management and peer-to-peer device solutions.

The consortium was founded by ASSA ABLOY, as well as technology companies HID Global, NXP Semiconductors and Samsung Electronics. Businesses that have joined the consortium include Bosch, test solutions firm LitePoint, Sony Imaging Products & Solutions and the Telecommunication Technology Association (TTA), an IT standardization organization.

Ramesh Songukrishnasamy

The group named itself the FiRa Consortium based on a feature that UWB offers, which it terms “fine ranging”—the ability to capture the locations of UWB devices with high location accuracy. That means access control can be more precise (with very specific and short read ranges) in order to prompt access to doors or other enclosures, and to provide highly accurate location data for asset management and location services. “UWB gives you the ability to very actively range the position of a device,” says Ramesh Songukrishnasamy, the FiRa Consortium’s director and treasurer, and HID Global’s senior VP and CTO.

By carrying the fine ranging nomenclature, Songukrishnasamy says, the group hopes to help overcome a misperception that UWB is an old communication technology. Whether or not the technology is referred to as UWB, he notes, it offers two benefits over other wireless communications technologies: very precise location detection and greater RF security to protect data exchange. Consortium members hope to standardize security measures, while further promoting and educating users about the technology’s benefits.

UWB has been in use for decades, Songukrishnasamy says, and some standardization has already taken place. The IEEE‘s 802.15 Enhanced Impulse Radio (EiR) Task Group 4z, for instance, has added new capabilities to the UWB-based physical layer transceiver (PHY) and media access control (MAC) portions of the standard, which ensures that different UWB technologies can operate together (see UWB Alliance Aims for Interoperability).

The FiRa Consortium hopes to build on that effort. The group will collaborate with other industry organizations, such as IEEE and the Wi-Fi Alliance, to promote and enable UWB use cases, utilizing the available 6 to 9 GHz spectrum.

UWB technology, by its nature, is more secure than some other wireless technologies that employ signal strength to identify a tag or other device, Songukrishnasamy explains. Those signal strength-based transmissions (such as NFC and RFID) can be intercepted if an individual is able to come between a tag (such as the kind built into a car key fob) and a receiver (the car’s locking system, for instance) and amplify the signal to fool the system into thinking the key fob is closer to the vehicle than it actually is. Companies can employ encryption to prevent these man-in-the-middle attacks.

Ultra-wideband technology employs time-of-flight (ToF) analytics to identify each tag’s location; the receiver measures the time of a tag’s response to a signal and identifies that tag’s location accordingly. A man-in-the-middle-style attack would actually slow the response, making it harder to fool the receiver. Despite that, Songukrishnasamy reports, UWB still can be made more secure. The consortium hopes to accomplish that greater security with a standard method for creating a scrambled time stamp, thereby making it more difficult to intercept. “We would like to propose a standard way of creating that scrambled time stamp so no one can intercept the message,” he states.

UWB is used for a variety of applications, and HID Global is focused predominantly on access-control solutions for which very precise location data is required, as well as for devices such as secured laptops and desktop computers. When assets are being tracked, UWB provides location accuracy that is more specific than standard RFID solutions, by detecting, for example, the room or part of a room in which an asset is located, based on transmissions from that asset’s tag. However, Songukrishnasamy says, “If you are doing more data exchange between asset and handset, you want to make sure that communication is secure.”

With regard to peer-to-peer solutions, two UWB devices can locate each other even without requiring fixed anchors or access points. This allows people to easily find one another in crowded spaces, or to locate items even when they are placed in hidden areas. The consortium’s working groups have begun scheduling meetings to start defining the security standard. The next step will be to hire a third-party laboratory to certify the new products and solutions from UWB technology companies.

On Sept. 8-12, the consortium will host a booth at the Global Security Exchange (GSX) trade show in Chicago, Ill. The group intends to demonstrate UWB technology at HID Global’s booth, and to then have a presence at future industrial trade shows. Going forward, Songukrishnasamy says, the group hopes to attract more members. “We’re actively looking for more participants to build the ecosystem,” he states, and to engage more companies in the effort to drive the adoption of UWB technology. “At this point, we believe there’s a compelling need to have a better technology to create a delightful user experience for access control” and other applications.

HID Global, which makes security-based identification products, intends to build UWB technology into some of its solutions in the future. “HID Global is constantly looking for technology to enhance the user experience,” Songukrishnasamy says. “As soon as a specification for FiRa is defined and published, we are committed to releasing products using the technology.” Meetings are being held at least quarterly at rotating locations in Mountain View, Calif., and Busan, Korea, with European sites being added this year.