Feb 22, 2021German standards organization Omlox and the UWB Alliance have begun collaborating as part of a joint liaison agreement. The partnership will help the Alliance expand its ultra-wideband (UWB) regulatory change efforts, including in the industrial sector, as well as bolster Omlox's focus on building an open standard for UWB and other real-time locating system (RTLS)-based technologies. The collaboration, according to the two organizations, will enable them to foster the expansion of UWB technologies throughout North America, in Europe and globally.
Omlox is a technology organization driven by a community of members with Profibus & Profinet International (PI). With 60 members thus far, it has a focus on an open standard for locating systems to make industrial and logistics deployments more affordable and interactable. This, the agency explains, will benefit both technology users and vendors of UWB and other RTLS hardware and software by bringing down costs, integrating systems and enabling retrofits.
The UWB Alliance focuses on advocating regulatory developments that promote the adoption of ultra-wideband technologies. The focus is currently on modifications to radio regulations at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (ECC) and the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), as well as other global bodies related to the use of UWB. The effort centers around easing existing rules to allow more power use for better indoor range, expanding outdoor use and simplifying the automotive rulesets.
The UWB Alliance, established in 2018 with operations in California, Washington, D.C., and Europe, is working on recommended modifications to offer greater flexibility to those designing or using technologies within the UWB band of 3.7 to 24 GHz. That band is shared with organizations such as the U.S. Department of Defense. However, says Tim Harrington, the UWB Alliance's chairman, the organization hopes to ease restrictions within specific swaths of the band in which UWB is used, rather than throughout the entire 21 GHz band.
"We would like to modify the regulations to allow more use of ultra-wideband while better sharing it with our neighbors," he states, "whether the Department of Defense or other licensed incumbents." The UWB Alliance has met once with the FCC regarding this subject, and it has additional meetings planned for later this year with ETSI, the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).
In preparing its recommendations, the UWB Alliance is relying on information from members in the sectors in which ultra-wideband technology is growing the fastest, including consumer-based products like smartphones and PCs, the automotive industry, and industrial or manufacturing environments. "We want to get the most input we can," Harrington states. In addition to UWB Alliance members—such as companies like Novelda that are specific to PC-based deployments—some of that input is coming from the UWB-based FiRa Consortium, which represents consumer-based deployments and smartphone companies, and now Omlox, representing the industrial sector.
Omlox has more than 80 members, and like the UWB Alliance, it was established in 2018. The organization is part of a much larger standards body, the 1,500-member Profibus & Profinet International, which provides machine-to-machine communication standards. Omlox focuses on developing open and interoperable standards for real-time locating services in the industrial market with UWB and other locating technologies, according to Matthias Jöst, PI's committee leader. The standard, which won a Hermes Award last year, is driven by a large ecosystem of software and hardware vendors, he says, as well as systems integrators and research laboratories.
Omlox's efforts center around RTLS technology used by factories and logistics companies, Jöst explains, with a standard approach by which a single application programming interface enables the integration of numerous systems, whether data is being collected via UWB, GPS, a 5G network, Wi-FI, RFID or BLE. UWB, he says, is an important pillar supporting real-time locating use cases. As the UWB industry grows, the need to provide an open standard is building. "Currently, there are proprietary solutions," Jöst states. "If you have technology from one vendor, you can't add infrastructure from another vendor."
With RTLS systems, Jöst explains, the cost of UWB deployments is relatively high, especially with proprietary systems. A single UWB system relies on fixed UWB access points and tags, while more use cases utilizing UWB means a faster return on investment, he says. "You start with one use case, might end up with a bunch of use cases," he states. For instance, RTLS data is being employed for asset tracking, work-in-progress (WIP), automated actions, safety and anti-collision, and navigation. The RTLS hardware is being used with fixed readers or anchors tracing the locations of tags in real time, as well as with readers applied to forklifts, automatic-guided vehicles and drones.
The technology can track WIP at factories, manage supplies and track finished products throughout the supply chain. Typically, each use case is served with a proprietary RTLS solution and a variety of hardware vendors. By making UWB and other RTLS technologies interoperable, Jöst says, "Our aim is to get the total cost of ownership for UWB-based locating systems down by a factor of 100." The open standard will enable users to mix and match solutions and technologies according to use cases and needs, he says. With standardized APIs, locating technologies can be integrated into existing software solutions. Simple Omlox systems run on edge devices, either on a shop floor or in a warehouse, while other solutions push location data to cloud-based software.
The benefits of an open standard for customers, Jöst explains, is the competition for vendors, resulting in lower prices and integration of systems, as well as future-proofing solutions so that retrofits can continue to be accomplished as systems evolve or expand. For vendors, the accessibility and flexibility of open systems means finding new ways to win customers. With RTLS technology, a solution could begin with asset management, then be expanded with additional features over time.
With the UWB Alliance liaison agreement, Omlox expects to further expand its efforts and its memberships with UWB companies worldwide. "We are convinced UWB is getting stronger and stronger," Jöst states. Although the standards organization launched in Europe, he notes, it is a global effort. "My hope is more companies in the U.S. join in." For example, Jöst says, American businesses could help make locating systems more affordable and easier to deploy and use.
Jöst expects an open standard will encourage more mid-sized companies to provide one element in an RTLS solution, then find partners to work with them on a full solution. In that way, he says, smaller firms can stay in the market and be less likely to be overtaken by a few big players. "That will be good for the entire market," he reports. In the meantime, the UWB Alliance is working to pull together requests to present to the FCC for UWB rules modifications. "We're actively reaching out for input" from UWB vendors and organizations, Harrington says, to learn what applications are taking place, what frequencies are being used, and where companies feel they do or don't need more power.
Both associations agree that UWB is entering a growth phase. By 2025, Harrington says, "We're looking at 2.5 billion devices." With potential improvements in power and resulting increases in range, he adds, installations could provide more specific location accuracy with fewer reading devices. To date, many companies are seeking approval for outdoor installations and added power use via waivers for the specific project from the FCC. "We want to change those waivers into the actual rules. That's the big win for everyone: by updating the rules, we make the process of going to market much easier."