UWB in iOS 13 Could Prompt Widespread Growth

Technology companies, equipment manufacturers and automotive firms are preparing for a potential widescale growth of ultra-wideband solutions as Apple's new operating system employs the technology; other mobile phone makers may be following close behind.
Published: October 21, 2019

Since Apple announced, in June 2019, that it is building ultra-wideband (UWB) technology into its new iOS devices, technology companies and consortiums have been preparing for anticipated growth in UWB applications and deployments in the coming years. These include keyless, hands-free vehicle access and Internet of Things (IoT)-based solutions for household, business and industrial use cases.

Apple’s new Find My app for instance, is believed to employ UWB to track the locations of items that have a so-called “Apple Tag” attached to them. These circular tags, which would be sold only by Apple for iOS products, could be affixed to backpacks, keys or other items so that users could easily find them via an iPhone. Users can employ the Find My app with an “items” tab, into which they would enter the objects they wish to track via the Apple Tag. Typically, UWB enables that kind of location precision within about 5 to 10 centimeters (2 to 3.9 inches), without requiring line of sight.

ABI Research’s Andrew Zignani

While it is unclear whether Apple will offer the UWB functionality as an open feature that app developers can use to build their own solution, it does mean UWB deployments are likely to become much more commonplace. For the UWB industry, that could result in new opportunities for deployments of the technology with a smartphone serving as a UWB anchor reading transmissions of a tag, or transmitting data to another UWB anchor, using time of flight (ToA) and angle of arrival (AoA) measurements to detect items’ locations. The phone then becomes a localization tool to identify where things or individuals are located, within inches.

In February of this year, the IEEE 802.15.4z standard was announced to make mobile transactions interoperable and secure, further propelling UWB developments. The standard has not yet been released, but is in its final stages prior to that release. Apple is an early member of the UWB 802.15.4z Task Group, which also includes Samsung and NXP Semiconductors, according to Andrew Zignani, a principal analyst at global technology market advisory firm ABI Research. “ABI Research believes it is only a matter of time before other mobile devices support UWB technology,” he states. Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

In recent years, ABI Research and other analysts have seen growing traction for UWB technology, particularly within real-time location system (RTLS) deployments in manufacturing environments. In April 2018, Zignani says, Siemens announced the acquisition of RTLS company Agilion for industrial applications. A number of other companies, such as Sewio, Zebra Technologies and IoT technology firm KINEXON, are targeting this space, he adds. By 2025, Zignani predicts, “ABI Research anticipates there will be nearly 16,000 UWB implementations in manufacturing environments alone.”

The 802.15.4z standard will open up new applications and use cases for the technology, Zignani notes, which will allow it to better target some of these innovative use cases for which secure data transmission is required. “While we are still scratching the surface, UWB technology itself has tremendous potential for a wide range of applications,” Zignani states, “and could transform the way in which we interact with our environments and devices in the coming years.”

Mikael Viot, Decawave‘s VP of marketing, says the UWB technology company expects the 802.15.4z UWB standard to be leveraged for more secure mobile payments and access-control applications, such as electronic door locks or transportation systems. The precise location capabilities, he explains, can be used in the automotive sector and for payment-based solutions as well. Decawave helped to drive the new standard and its predecessor, 802.15.4a, for security in mobile financial and access transactions. The company develops semiconductors for UWB solutions, as well as software, modules and reference designs for location services.

Decawave’s Mikael Viot

Working groups for the FiRa Consortium, which is focused on UWB standards, are developing use cases and ensuring the interoperability of solutions before deployments take place. Charles Dachs, NXP’s senior VP for mobile transactions, serves as the board vice-chair for FiRa, which is seeking to aid in seamless user experiences with interoperable UWB technologies. The organization will work with alliances that represent Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and Near Field Communication (NFC) technologies for hybrid solutions.

When it comes to Apple’s latest iOS announcement with UWB functionality, Dachs says, “That’s quite significant. Apple is known as a company that can provide great user experiences, and this is something that is very much aligned with what we have in mind for UWB.” For instance, with UWB in a smartphone, users will have an RTLS tool in hand that could begin locating or communicating with items at very little expense. “There are many, many use cases we see.” FiRa lists three key applications in the near future: hands-free access control, location-based services and device-to-device (or peer-to-peer) services.

With regard to access control, UWB can be used to gain entry to homes, offices or vehicles without requiring a key or the tapping of a card or badge. A key fob or a UWB-enabled phone could be used to transmit an encrypted code to a UWB anchor linked to a door lock on a car or building. This could be accomplished without removing the tag from a pocket or purse.

The anchor could accept that ID number only if the location data indicated the key was directly in front of the lock, thereby eliminating the fraud that often takes place with “man in the middle”-style hacks, by which thieves capture an individual’s remote access key to his or her vehicle without that person’s permission. The access-control functionality could consist of unmanned store access with a loyalty card, for instance, and barrier-free access to industrial or health-care settings with a badge.

For households, location-based services could provide content about a home-bound patient or other individual to a services provider with UWB technology, while also collecting data about the time and duration of the visit. What’s more, the technology could enable ride or bike sharing, gaming, indoor navigation, and asset or patient tracking at hospitals if UWB tags were attached to assets or patients.

Device-to-device features are possible for smart conference rooms; a user could access a room with a phone or badge, for instance, and thereby gain the credentials of others within his or her proximity. Drone delivery could benefit from UWB as well; a drone’s UWB anchor device could identify its own arrival at a delivery site by transmitting data to a UWB tag located there and identifying its exact location based on the response of the tag or UWB-enabled mobile phone. Other applications include targeted marketing to send content to a shopper with a UWB-enabled phone, as well as finding equipment or tools in industrial or health-care settings.

NXP’s Charles Dachs

“The FiRA Consortium was organized to address the need for interoperability for the many verticals now using this technology,” Dachs says. “This technology simply has something quite unique: the ability to locate an item accurately and securely in space.”

NXP has been investing in UWB for the past few years, and it announced that effort in June 2019. The firm introduced its Secure UWB Fine Ranging Chipset, based on the 802.15.4z standard, last month. This solution combines a Secure Element (SE) with NFC and UWB fine-ranging technologies. NXP’s UWB chipset will allow mobile devices to communicate with connected doors, points of entry and cars so that they will open upon approach. In addition, Zignani reports, connected lights, speakers and other devices with UWB capabilities will be able to follow users between rooms, activating or deactivating in relation to their position.

Volkswagen and NXP demonstrated an NXP-based UWB system for secure and convenient access to its vehicles in Hamburg, Germany, this past August. The car’s locking system could, for instance, recognize personal gestures for opening a vehicle’s trunk, then automatically engage with a tagged trailer that the car’s UWB anchor recognizes.