New UWB technology for your home, car or flight

Monday, 05 December, 2011

A radio technology that transmits data at speeds of up to 1 Gbps, uses very little power and can even determine the location of a person or object to within 50 cm, promises to revolutionise wireless communications. The EU-funded research is helping to make the leap from laboratory to market. New applications could include automated controls in vehicles and wireless communications on planes.

Ultra-wideband (UWB) radio, also known as ultraband, uses a broad segment of the radio spectrum to transmit and receive data, giving it versatility that, over short distances at least, few other wireless communications technologies can match. At very high data rates it can be used to stream huge amounts of data very quickly - substituting and surpassing USB cables for interconnecting computers and mobile devices, for example. At low data rates, it offers a robust communications channel and, uniquely, real-time and precise positioning features, all at a fraction of the power consumption of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or other wireless technologies.

It is suitable for anyone who wants to stream video from their mobile phone, have their sound system automatically adjust to where they are sitting in the room, or wirelessly connect sensors and actuators in a car. Until now, however, its commercial roll-out has been hindered by regulatory hurdles. Using a large segment of the radio spectrum - between 3 and 10 GHz - makes UWB versatile, but it also means that devices using the technology may operate at frequencies assigned to other services, such as WiMAX, satellite communications or radar. Regulators have therefore feared that UWB could cause interference with other technologies. These concerns are now being addressed through research, trials and demonstrations.

"The regulatory issue and concerns about interference have been the biggest challenges facing UWB but - thanks to revolutionary 'new thinking' in the regulatory environment in the very recent past - the take-off of this disruptive radio technology has now been enabled for a wide range of applications," said Sven Zeisberg, professor for telecommunication technology at the University of Applied Sciences (HTW) in Dresden, Germany.

Zeisberg has long been a proponent of UWB, helping launch a series of EU-funded initiatives over the last decade to develop and deploy the radio technology, which most recently culminated in the 'European ultra-wideband' (EUWB) project. Coordinated by German technology firm GWT-TUD and involving 26 industrial, academic and consulting partners from Europe and Israel, the project has implemented UWB in a diverse range of applications, proving its potential as a future wireless communications technology that is not only extremely useful in many environments, but is also robust, safe and does not cause harmful interference to other radio services.

"Together with project partner EADS, we were able to demonstrate applications of UWB for communications in an aircraft cabin. If we can demonstrate that it is safe to use UWB in planes, which is one of the most sensitive radio environments, then we can show that UWB can be used almost anywhere," Zeisberg, the EUWB quality manager and former project coordinator, explained.

Admittedly, it will probably be a few years before UWB technology is used for communications in aircraft, because of the aviation sector's strict regulatory environment, but there are many applications that are both closer to the ground and closer to market. Some are even being commercialised today.

In parallel to participating in EUWB, project partner Veebeam developed and brought to market a UWB transmitter that wirelessly streams content from computer to television. Meanwhile, HTW Dresden has set up a spin-off company, ZIGPOS, to commercialise UWB-based sensor networking applications.

Another group of partners are planning a second spin-off to offer a UWB-based alternative to Wi-Fi. They are working to implement it with the forthcoming IPv6 Internet protocol to create an access point - the first of its kind in the world - with data rates of up to 1 Gbps using only one-hundredth of the radio power of existing Wi-Fi.

"There are many commercial applications for UWB in many industries and many companies are very keen on the technology," said Zeisberg.

In addition to the demonstration of the technology in aircraft cabin communications, the EUWB team members have also demonstrated it in a car for control systems. In collaboration with project partner Bosch, the EUWB team showed how UWB can be used for wireless command and control functions and how its location awareness features could play a role in smart vehicles. For example, if a couple owns one car and each has a key, UWB technology could be used to unlock the doors and automatically position the seat, mirrors and steering wheel depending on which key - and key-holder - approaches or enters the vehicle.

"The location detection is so accurate that it could even determine who is in the driver's seat and who is the passenger," said Zeisberg, "and because the power used to transmit data is so low, the battery in the key would last for an extremely long time."

Those two unique features of UWB - highly accurate location detection to within half a metre and very low power consumption - were further emphasised in two other demonstrations by the project.

In one demonstration, installed in a Philips future home, UWB enabled a home theatre system to track a person around a room and adjust the sound and speaker balance accordingly.

"With UWB, location detection is not just possible in active mode but also in passive mode. Due to the very wide radio frequency UWB uses, we can transpose from the frequency to the time domain with high timing precision. That enables UWB devices to determine where an object or person is located based on the different radio propagation ratios and the 'echoes' that are sent back - similar to how a bat uses echolocation," Zeisberg explained.

In another demonstration, UWB was integrated by Spanish project partner Telefónica I+D into access network equipment and mobile devices to send large amounts of data over relatively short distances. UWB's low energy-per-bit consumption makes it suitable for future mobile devices as it promises to dramatically extend battery life - critical at a time when data-intensive applications such as streaming video are becoming more popular. At throughputs of around 30 Mbps, transmitters using the current 802.11n Wi-Fi standard consume around 350 mW, whereas UWB transmitters transmit 10 times faster with the same power, thus completing transmissions in one-tenth of the time and saving an enormous amount of energy."

"With the Telefónica trials, we not only demonstrated the benefits of UWB for faster data transfer but we also proved that it can operate and coexist alongside other radio technologies without causing harmful interference," said Zeisberg.

The key to avoiding interference which could be harmful to other wireless technologies, despite sharing parts of the radio band with them, is UWB's low transmission power. "A vacuum cleaner or an electric shaver is actually allowed to emit the same out-of-band energy that UWB transmits in-band," notes Zeisberg.

The downside of this is UWB's short range - at most around 30 m. However, this low-power, low-range feature is essential to ensuring non-interference with other radio technologies, and makes securing regulatory approval for new applications of UWB possible.

"The EUWB partners have been involved in all the recent European regulatory and standardisation efforts regarding UWB radio technology. We are trying to convince regulators further that UWB can coexist alongside other radio technologies, even in aircraft," Zeisberg said.

In light of the results of the EUWB project, there is a good chance they will achieve that goal.

The EUWB project received research funding from the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), under the ICT 'Network of the future' theme. It was awarded the 'Best Demonstration Stand 2011' award at the Future Network and Mobile Summit conference in Poland in June.

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