How does it work and which smartphones are compatible?

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From the U1 chip integrated in the iPhone 11 we know the Ultra-wideband, a standard related to Bluetooth or Wi-Fi and that allows you to locate objects with precision. This is the technology that allows AirTags to work so well or find your AirPods Pro 2.

In September 2019, the iPhone 11 was presented with a particularity: its U1 chip. This promised to enable improved AirDrop, which now allowed you to point your smartphone at someone else’s to send them a file. Behind this somewhat gimmicky functionality is a whole technology that Apple would like to democratize. Ultra Wide Band (UWB, or Ultra Wide Band).

Since then, the standard has spread, though it’s still the prerogative of a handful of high-end devices, the full list of which you’ll find here.

Ultra Wideband Compatible Devices

Apple smartphones with ultra-wideband

Apple has integrated ultra-wideband into all of its iPhone models since iPhone 11.

Google smartphones with ultra-wideband

Google integrates UWB in its Google Pixel 7 Pro and Pixel 6 Pro.

Samsung smartphones with ultra-wideband

It is present in the Samsung Galaxy from the Note 20 Ultra, through the Galaxy S21, S22 and S23, only in the Plus and Ultra models, as well as in the Fold from the Z Fold 2.

Other ultra-wideband smartphones

UWB is also found in the Xiaomi Mix 4 and the recent Vivo X90 Pro.

Other ultra-broadband devices

You’ll find UWB on Apple Watch Series 6, 7, and 8, as well as Apple Watch Ultra. Also at Apple, the standard is used in HomePod Mini, HomePod (2nd generation), AirPods Pro (2nd generation), and AirTag. Samsung has integrated it into its SmartTag+ as well as its Galaxy Buds 2 Pro.

What is ultra-broadband?

Ultra-wideband is a radio standard known for decades, approved by the US telecommunications regulator in 2002. But until then it had remained confined to industrial applications: consumer electronics that prefer Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.

It allows both very precise locations of objects and transmits data faster than Bluetooth. Here’s how it works, and why we’re only hearing about it now.

How to locate objects?

Common point of UWB, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi: these are the three standards that use electromagnetic waveslike light for example.

But it is a very different light than what we see with our eyes, because it is not in the same frequency band. Visible light, for example, has a frequency on the order of 1 million GHz. Radio waves, which we are interested in here, have several frequencies below 15 GHz. When devices communicate wirelessly, they send signals of a specific frequency (or color if we use the analogy with light). Telecommunications authorities make sure to regulate the use of frequency bands to avoid any cacophony.

For the radio waves used in our daily lives, air is not transparent. It’s like when you swim underwater: you can see some distance away, but the water gradually absorbs the light and becomes opaque in the distance. Similarly, electromagnetic signals get weaker as they travel at different speeds depending on their frequency band.

5 meter accuracy via Wi-Fi, 1-2 meter via Bluetooth 5.0

So a smartphone can perform a “proximity sensor” function and sense if it is close enough to a transmitting beacon to capture a continuous signal. This is what the two great current technologies allow, the Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and the Wifi. But it’s still not a measure of distance. However, if we can measure the strength of the signal, can’t we conclude that the stronger the signal, the shorter the distance?

This is what current technologies do, but it is not effective, for two main reasons. First, it is enough to put a metal or concrete obstacle between the beacon and the phone so that the signal is considerably weakened. Second, there is concern about interference. If there are too many signals of the same color (or frequency), which is often the case on the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi bands, the beacon will quickly be drowned in the mass. Result, the accuracy of a location is about 5 meters over Wi-Fi and 1 to 2 meters over Bluetooth 5.0.

L’uwb solve both problems. It works with very fast pulses. Instead of measuring the strength of the signal, we can measure the flight time (ToF), that is, the time it takes for a signal to pass from one device to another. The speed of light is fixed approximately, this allows three beacons to triangulate a position with an accuracy of 5 to 10 centimeters. As its name suggests, UWB emits over a wide band of frequencies: if there is too much light interference in one color, the other colors can compensate.

The new Airdrop

From warehouses to smartphones

Where is UWB used today? Mainly in warehouses. In these places it is necessary to be able to precisely know the position of this or that merchandise, or even keep track of the transport pallets that make their way through the aisles. If UWB hasn’t spread much beyond industrial applications yet, it’s mainly because its components are historically more expensive than those of a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi antenna.

Since UWB is rare among the general public, manufacturers of various devices have had little reason to integrate it themselves. A well-known vicious circle between technological standards, and that Apple likes to break. The firm, for example, integrated the USB port into its iMacs in the late 1990s, thus popularizing a high-performance standard that was struggling to take off. With the launch of AirTag, the Apple firm has renewed this creed.

The other assets of the UWB

Beyond localization, UWB has other tricks up its sleeve. It can transfer between 6 and 8 MB/s of data, more than the 2 MB/s of Bluetooth 5.0, and its power consumption is well below Wi-Fi, something Apple wants to take advantage of for improved AirDrop. , but we are beginning to see progress in other areas. In late August 2019, semiconductor manufacturer NXP partnered with the Volkswagen brand to demonstrate a UWB car key. This would prevent relay attacks, increasingly implicated in hands-free entry car theft, by ensuring the key is right next to the car.

Article written by four hands with Vic Castro.

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