Categories: Technology

Ultra-Wideband Technology: An Old Idea to Reform Modern Access Control

Ultra-Wideband Technology

Ultra-wideband (UWB) technology is as old as the radio. It was first used in 1901, by the Italian innovator Guglielmo Marconi, who sent Morse code sequences across the Atlantic Ocean using spark-gap radio transmitters.

Within fifty years, defense sectors started to utilize UWB, which provided the highest standards of secure and reliable communications. While the use of UWB has been restricted to military purposes until the 21st century, thanks to regulatory changes, it’s now possible to use UWB systems in general data communication applications.

Fast forward to 2020, as the commercial use of UWB technologies is on the rise, many future-forward companies are aware of its potentials to take security and convenience to a new level.

How Does UWB Work?

Ultra-Wideband Technology

The UWB Alliance, a non-profit organization, describes UWB as “a unique radio technology that can use extremely low energy levels for short-range, high-bandwidth communications over a large portion of the radio spectrum.”

While narrowband technologies such as Bluetooth or WiFi transmit signals in data packages, UWB does the same in a sequence of short pulses. The process isn’t immune to some technical challenges. However, it still has the unique ability to send or receive information while also measuring the distance between the sender and the receiver.

The measurement of the time a pulse needs to travel from the sender to the receiver, known as “time-of-flight measurement”, facilitates the process. This feature is what makes UWB uniquely secure as the receiver undoubtedly knows the distance from the sender.

How Can UWB Change Access Control?

The UWB Alliance states that UWB has countless applications across industries that can benefit from improvements such as more accurate location, navigation, tracking, security, imaging, sensing, and communication. Hence, the potentials of UWB in access control and security technologies are particularly striking.

The automobile industry is already working on enabling UWB-powered access. Volkswagen is one of the first to tap into the unique security features of UWB, which allows the German car manufacturer to create a digital car key. Besides being able to send digital keys to other persons, UWB technology protects car owners from relay attacks. A relay attack describes the method of stealing a car by spoofing the presence of a key by amplifying a signal to -and from a remote, authorized key, and car respectively.

New Catalysts for UWB Adoption

Ultra-Wideband Technology

The trendsetting technology giant Apple set its gaze on incorporating UWB to provide access more secure and more accessible than ever. Apple announced that UWB is included in its U1 chips, which is built into its iPhone11. Therefore, the iPhone11 is capable to precisely locate and communicate with other UWB-equipped devices. The tech giant describes this modern application of UWB as “GPS at the scale of your living room”. Likewise, technology magazine WIRED dubs it as “Bluetooth on steroids”.

Most recently, Apple has announced its collaboration with BMW for car access. Other car manufacturing leaders will likely follow the course.

“Frictionless” Access to Boost Security and Convenience

With UWB’s advance into the automotive industry, the focus is also shifting to other possible applications, summarized under the buzzword “frictionless” access. Through UWB-powered smart sensors, it’s possible to access rooms, buildings, or cars, doing nothing more than carrying a mobile phone or a smartwatch.

UWB technologies enable the so-called “frictionless” access without compromising security. It permits access to an area without interfering with the user’s experience.

Riet Cadonau, Chairman and CEO of the dormakaba Group

“This is why we have started to invest in this technology some years ago, and we are happy to see that our vision for secure yet convenient access is now about to become a reality,” Riet Cadonau, Chairman and CEO of the dormakaba Group adds.

Boris Danev, co-founder and CEO of 3db Access, echoes Cadonau. Based in Switzerland, Danev’s firm develops low-power integrated UWB chip technology for secure contactless access control for the automotive and consumer markets.

Secure car access is only one of the countless applications of UWB technologies,” says Danev. “UWB boosts not only personal but also industrial security.

Boris Danev, co-founder and CEO of 3db Access

New Standards To Pave the Way for Mainstream UWB Adoption

Currently, several organizations and consortia, such as IEEE, the UWB Alliance, FiRa, and Profibus/omlox are identifying the standards for UWB. The definition of such open standards is the basis for building interoperable UWB ecosystems where mobile phones, smartwatches, electronic keys work seamlessly with smart locks, tags for asset tracking, and other devices across different providers.

UWB-empowered access is still at an early stage of adoption, even though it has almost unlimited potentials. Hence, in the upcoming years, the mainstream adoption process of UWB will likely shape many conversations in access technologies and inspire innovators.

Dr. Andreas Haeberli

Dr. Andreas Haeberli

Andreas is the Chief Technology Officer of the dormakaba Group. He is a Member of the Board at 3db Access AG and of the public listed companies Komax and Kardex. He is part of the Industrial Advisory Board for Mechanical and Process Engineering at ETH and a member of the Research Committee of Swissmem. Andreas holds a PhD in technical sciences from ETH Zurich.