Apple’s U1 chip, Android Boost UWB technology that lets your phone unlock your car

You’ve heard of wireless standards like Wireless, Bluetooth and 5G. Now it’s time to discover another: ultra-wideband, or UWB.

The technology, which has started to arrive in phones, tracking beacons and some cars, uses radio signals to pinpoint a device’s location. UWB is the basis for tracking tags such as Apple AirTag and Samsung’s SmartTag Plus, which can help you find a lost key fob, purse, wallet or pet. In some cases, like the like the BMW iXUWB lets you unlock your car as you approach with your phone, and it should let you unlock your front door as well.

UWB calculates locations within half an inch by measuring the time it takes for ultra-short radio pulses to travel between devices. It can also transfer data – indeed, that’s what it was originally designed to do over a decade ago – but for now that’s a secondary light compared to precise positioning.

For now, the uses of UWB are limited. But as it matures and spreads to more devices, UWB could lead to a world where just carrying your phone or wearing your watch helps you connect to your laptop when you approach or lock your home when you leave.

Apple is one of the biggest fans of UWB. He designed his own UWB chip, the U1, and embeds it in iPhones, AirTags and Apple Watches. That’s how new iPhones use “precision search” to lead you to an AirTag-equipped key fob or Apple Watch within range. Automakers including Audi, BMW, Hyundai, and Ford are also very supportive of UWB.

“Being able to determine precisely where you are in an environment is increasingly important,” said ABI Research analyst Andrew Zignani, who expects shipments of UWB-enabled devices to jump from 150 million in 2020 to 1 billion in 2025. “Once a technology becomes integrated into a smartphone, it opens up very significant opportunities for wireless technology.”


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Here’s a look at UWB and its uses.

What’s UWB good for?

Satellite-based GPS is useful for finding yourself on a map but struggles with anything much more precise and indoors. UWB doesn’t have those handicaps. But UWB’s potential goes far beyond that practical feature.

UWB could switch your TV from your child’s Netflix profile to yours. Your smart speaker could give calendar alerts only for the people in the room. Your laptop could wake up when you enter the home office.

Imagine this scenario: You leave the office and as you near your car, receivers in its doors recognize your phone and unlock the vehicle for you. When you get out of the car at home, the receivers recognize you’re no longer in the vehicle and lock the doors.

With UWB, your home could recognize that you’re returning at night and illuminate your walkway. It could then automatically unlock your front door. Your music and lights could follow you from room to room.

“I’m walking in a sound and light cocoon in my house,” said Lars Reger, chief technology officer of NXP Semiconductors, a UWB proponent whose chips are widely used in cars.

Samsung promises UWB technology for precisely tracking your location will automatically unlock car doors with digital keys in your smartphone.

Samsung’s UWB technology for precisely tracking your location will be able to automatically unlock car doors with digital keys in your smartphone.


Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Bluetooth-based location sensing takes at least two seconds to get an accurate fix on your location, but UWB is a thousand times faster, Reger said.

UWB will add more than convenience, supporters say. Conventional key fobs have security problems in regard to remotely unlocking cars: criminals can use relay attacks that mimic car and key communications to steal a vehicle. Case in point: security researchers at NCC Group demonstrating in May they could hack into a Tesla Model 3’s Bluetooth connection. Tesla told the researchers that such relay attacks are a known limitation.

UWB has cryptographic protections against that sort of problem. And Tesla, for one, is interested. UWB’s precise timing and positioning technology means it’s “immune to relay attacks,” the carmaker said in a 2021 application with the FCC for new wireless key fobs and in-car equipment seen by the Verge.

This same ability to track your movements has downsides, particularly if you don’t like the idea of the government following your movements or coffee shops flooding your phone with coupons as you walk by. But with today’s privacy push, expect phone makers to prohibit anyone from tracking your phone without your permission.

How is Google supporting UWB?

Google’s support for UWB began in 2021 with its Pixel 6 phones. But the company’s influence is greater through its Android phone software.

Google added limited UWB support into Android 12 in 2021, but it should improve with Android 13 in 2022. That’s because the company is opening up the programming interface so any app can use it, not just Google’s software. Google also is adding UWB support to Android’s Mainline technology that could spread UWB support so apps can use it on earlier phones, too.

Google’s UWB support enables digital car key technology so you will be able to use your phone as a car key on some BMW models.  Android can store digital car keys in Google Wallet. Expect broader support among carmakers in coming years.

How is Apple supporting UWB?

The iPhone 11iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 smartphones include Apple’s UWB chip, the U1. It joins a handful of other processors Apple has developed, including the A series that powers iPhones and iPads, the M1 at the heart of new Macs, iPad Pros and iMacs, and the T series that handles Touch ID and other security duties on Macs.

Apple AirTags

Apple AirTags incorporate UWB.


Credit: Apple/Screenshot by CNET

AirTags really bring the technology alive, though. UWB communicates with an iPhone 11 or 12 so a big arrow leads you to the tag. When UWB isn’t in range, a Bluetooth connection means AirTags tap into Apple’s Find My system, which lets other people’s devices discover your AirTag’s location and share it privately with you.

“The new Apple-designed U1 chip uses ultra wideband technology for spatial awareness — allowing iPhone 11 Pro to precisely locate other U1-equipped Apple devices. It’s like adding another sense to [the] iPhone,” Apple said of the U1 chip when it arrived. Here’s another use: “With U1 and iOS 13, you can point your iPhone at someone else, and AirDrop will prioritize that device to so you can share files faster.”

the Apple Watch Series 6 and Series 7 also have built-in UWB to make them easier to locate.

Apple currently only promises UWB links between its own devices. But UWB standardization should open up a world of other connections, and software tweaks should allow Apple to adapt as UWB standards mature.

Apple’s years of UWB work is evident in several patents. This includes patents for shaping UWB pulses for more precision in distance measurements, using a phone, watch or key fob to enter and start a car, calculating your way to a car so your car can send to your phone a request for biometric authentication, and letting Bluetooth and UWB work together to give you access to your car.

Apple hopes UWB will help you find your dog, control your thermostat, and unlock your front door.

Apple says UWB will help you find your dog, control your thermostat, and unlock your front door.

Apple via US PTO

How does Samsung support UWB?

Samsung supports UWB in its Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, Galaxy S21 Plus and Galaxy S21 Ultraand Galaxy S22 smartphone family.

“You’ll be able to unlock your car door with your phone,” Kevin Chung of Samsung’s direct-to-consumer center said at the S21 2021 launch. later.”

Samsung’s UWB-based digital car key technology lets you send digital keys to friends or family members, and Samsung’s AR finder app will show the direction of your car in a crowded parking lot. Samsung has key digital partnerships with BMW, Audi, Ford and Hyundai’s Genesis Motor.

Samsung Smart Tag Plus uses UWB.

Who else is interested in UWB?

Other companies involved in UWB include consumer electronics giant Sony; chipmakers Decawave, Qualcomm, NXP and STMicroelectronics; automakers Volkswagen, Hyundai and Jaguar Land Rover; and automotive electronics giant Bosch.

Another notable player is Tile, which has been selling tracking tags for years to help you find things like keychains and wallets. The UWB-based Tile’s Ultra was supposed to arrive in early 2022, but Life360 has acquired the company and is reviewing the product’s launch schedule. It still plans to ship the Tile Ultra “when the time is right for the combined company,” a Tile representative said in a statement.

Confusingly, these companies have coalesced into two industry groups, the UWB Alliance which formed in December 2018 and the FiRa Consortium (short for “fine range”) which formed in August 2019. Samsung joined FiRa, Apple is not listed as a member. of any.

On top of that, there’s the Car Connectivity Consortium working on digital key technology. All three groups figured out who’s doing what now to avoid stepping on each other’s toes, Harrington said.

FiRa is working on standards to ensure UWB devices work together properly, while the UWB Alliance is trying to minimize UWB issues from expanding Wi-Fi into the 6 GHz radio band that UWB also uses. For example, there are brief pauses in Wi-Fi signals sent in the 6 GHz band, and UWB transmissions could squeeze through those gaps, said UWB Alliance executive director Tim Harrington.

How does the ULB work?

The idea behind UWB has been around for decades. Indeed, the University of Southern California established an ultra-wideband lab called UltRa in 1996. Some of the concepts date back to radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi, Harrington says.

UWB devices send many very short, low-power pulses of energy over an unusually wide spectrum of radio waves. The UWB frequency range spans at least 500 MHz, compared to Wi-Fi channels often about a tenth the width. UWB’s low-power signals cause little interference with other radio transmissions.

UWB sends up to 1 billion pulses per second, or 1 per nanosecond. By sending pulses in patterns, UWB encodes the information. It takes between 32 and 128 pulses to encode a single bit of data, Harrington said, but given the speed at which the bits arrive, this allows for data rates of 7 to 27 megabits per second. Tesla may be interested in UWB’s data transfer capabilities, promising speeds of up to 7.8 Mbps.

apple-iphone-11-u1-chip

Apple’s Phil Schiller touted the company’s U1 chip for UWB in the iPhone 11 in 2019.

Screenshot and illustration by Stephen Shankland/CNET

The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) developed a UWB standard called 802.15.4 over 15 years ago, but it was not adopted for its initial intended use, sending data quickly.

Location detection has made UWB a hot topic again?

Companies like Spark Microsystems use UWB for data transfer, but most tech giants like it for precisely measuring location. Even though 802.15.4 failed when it was created years ago, UWB’s revival is happening because its ultra-short radio pulses allow computers to calculate distances very precisely.

Today, UWB development is active again, for example with the 802.15.4z standard which strengthens the security of key fobs and payments and improves location accuracy to less than one centimeter. Solving today’s relay attack problems, where someone with radio technology essentially copies and pastes radio communications from key fobs or smartphone unlocking systems, was a top priority for 802.15.4z. “With the precise timing you leave UWB and the ability to know exactly where you are, you can cut the man in the middle [relay] attack completely,” Harrington said.

Another area of ​​active development is improving the way you can use your phone to make payments at a payment terminal.

Radio waves travel about 30 centimeters (1 foot) in a billionth of a second, but with short pulses, devices can calculate distances very accurately by measuring the “time of flight” of a radio signal to another responding device. with its own signal. With multiple antennas positioned in different locations, UWB radios can calculate the direction to another device, not just the distance.

UWB fits perfectly with the Internet of Things, networking doorbells, speakers, light bulbs and other devices.

It is already used for localization. NFL players have UWB transmitters in each shoulder pad, part of the broadcast technology used for instant replay animations. The location of a soccer ball is updated 2,000 times per second, according to Harrington.

Boeing uses UWB tags to track more than 10,000 tools, carts and other items in its vast factories.

UWB consumes very little power. A sensor that sends a pulse once per second should operate for seven years on a single coin cell battery.

Verizon has 5G Ultra Wideband. Is it the same thing?

No. Verizon uses the same words, but it’s just a brand label.

“5G Ultra Wideband is our brand name for our 5G service,” spokesman Kevin King said. “It’s not a technology.”

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