UWB fills sub-meter positioning demand

Stephen Colwell
02 Apr 2008

It sounds too good to be true: a technology that can see through walls, transfer gigabytes of data in seconds, utilize signals that go undetected because of their low frequency (and are thus secure), and provide a viable real-time location system (RTLS) capability with a positioning accuracy in the 15 to 30cm range, in three dimensions. Oh, and by the way, the signals travel seamlessly through concrete, rock, and metal obstacles.

Welcome to the world of ultra wide band (UWB) technology, which is expected to bring a windfall of new features and applications for manufacturers of cell phones, PDAs, laptops, and PNDs, including emergency services, asset tracking, search and rescue, manufacturing inventory management and medical patient monitoring.

UWB's sub-meter positioning capability raises particularly interesting possibilities. For example, its ability to penetrate dense structures, similar to ground-penetrating radar, and create images of what's on the other side is a great tool for firefighters looking for people trapped in a smoke-filled building. And firefighters themselves can be located and tracked in three dimensions within areas where GPS does not perform well.

The mass-market desire for sub-meter positioning systems is heating up as consumers of location systems realize that GNSS lacks the ability to really pinpoint a precise dot on the map without some supplemental technology. Assisted GPS has certainly improved accuracies and time to first fix for many location devices, but UWB holds the promise of being able to keep track of tens of thousands of location tags, each updating once a second with minimal effort.

One firm getting into the fray and announcing indoor positioning systems based on UWB is Thales, the company that used to own Magellan. Thales's new indoor positioning system is designed for firefighters, among others. In a recent presentation the company outlined potential applications for the system in terms of accuracy needed, and it definitely indicates a healthy market for sub-meter positioning.

A strong business case

The market for UWB devices looks very strong indeed. "Existing technologies such as Bluetooth 2.0 and Wi-Fi have limitations in terms of power consumption efficiency, data rates, quality and security. UWB, however, allows end-users instantaneous access to a broad spectrum of information," according to a recent Frost & Sullivan report.

F&S analyst Venkat Malleypula says that "multiple companies are developing UWB technologies to specifically address the need of various applications such as precision geo-positioning systems, collision and obstacle avoidance radars, intelligent transportation systems, asset tracking, medical imaging, and wireless communications."

Both RFID and RTLS have attracted significant venture capital interest lately. More than $433 million has been invested in RFID and RTLS firms in the last 18 months, according to industry trade publication RFID Update. In a recent report from market analyst In-Stat, UWB sales are forecast to surpass the current Wi-Fi sales volume of about $300 million this year. Communications applications with UWB will hit the market in 2010 and in 2011, and more than 400 million UWB-enabled devices will ship.

Although the technology case for UWB is strong, the industry has struggled for years to establish an agreed-upon standard. IEEE recently standardized upon IEEE 802.15.3a and UWB for low-speed data transfer, which has been further standardized in IEEE 802.15.4a. It's been a long road for development companies, partly due to regulatory debates over whether UWB spectrum should be licensed. Another concern, which has been addressed in many white papers, is UWB interference with GPS signal processing.

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