Apple, earlier this week finally launched AirTags after a lot of speculation over the last couple of years. For those of you who don’t know, these are small discs that you attach to your belongings and “Tag” them digitally. It’s designed to help you find these items in case you misplace or lose them. My interest in the AirTag is because of a cool tech called Ultra Wide Band(UWB) which enables all the magic of finding these tags in an indoor environment precisely and with a very high degree of accuracy. I wanted to take you through the details of UWB tech, how it works and how Apple may have found a killer product in this small device.
AirTags are meant to be attached to items that you consider valuable. Starting with the specs, it’s a small 32mm(1.3″) diameter circular disc that weighs in at 11g. It contains a 3V CR2032 battery which is replaceable(Replaceable batteries are welcome change these days in the tech industry!) and a built-in speaker which you can ping from your phone to make it beep to let you know where it is. It contains an accelerometer to sense motion. The core tech consists of 3 RF technologies built into this small form factor. Those are Bluetooth Low Energy(BLE) for proximity finding of the tag, Near-Field Communication(NFC) for tapping the phone to get the owners info from the tag in case it’s lost and an Ultra Wide Band (UWB) mode for precision location finding which is made possible by Apple’s new custom U1 chip. Since BLE and NFC are techs that are widely discussed, today I would like to focus on UWB.
The UWB refers to radio signals which have relatively high bandwidth. US Federal Communication Commission aka FCC classifies signals with bandwidth greater than 500MHz or have a fractional bandwidth (i.e) Bandwidth/Centre frequency) of 20% as UWB. Whereas EU classifies any device as UWB if it exceeds a bandwidth of 50MHz. The important takeaway is that UWB signals have significantly higher bandwidth than most narrowband signals used in communication. The frequency range allotted for UWBs by the FCC is between 3.1GHz to 10.6GHz.
Although it has a higher bandwidth, the permissible power transmission limit allowed by FCC part 15 over this wide frequency range is only -41.3dBm/MHz as shown in the figure below. The power needed is considerably lower compared with other communication signals of WiFi, Bluetooth or GPS. This low power feature is what is allowing AirTag to run up to a year with a small battery.
Power limits of the UWB signals in the other ranges are also very low as shown in the frequency table below so that it doesn’t interfere with any other signals.
|Frequency Range (MHz)||Radiated Power Limit (dBm)|
|960 – 1610||-75.3|
|1610 – 1990||-53.3|
|1990 – 3100||-51.3|
|3100 – 10600||-41.3|
So far we know that UWB signals have high bandwidth and low transmission power. It transmits information in terms of extremely narrow pulses(Less than 2ns) in a defined time interval. It’s an encoded communication taking 32 and 128 pulses to encode a single bit of information. As pulse width is very narrow, it is a high-speed form of communication with an upper limit on data rate at 27Mbps. This is much higher than other close range transfers of Bluetooth which maxes out around 2-3Mbps in the best-case scenarios. So UWBs can be used as a reliable technique for high-speed data transfer with a low power requirement(Think Mobile to Mobile File transfers). But low power essentially means that the range of these signals is not that large.
UWB systems are utilised for localisation. For ranging it utilises the time of flight of signals. Assume there is a UWB tag in a room with UWB sources placed at 3-4 points on the room. Now assuming all the UWB sources are time synchronised with one another and it pings the UWB tag. Based on the response from the tag, you will be able to pinpoint the location of the tag with a very high degree of accuracy with the time of flight calculations. I am not going to go into detail on the math/algorithm side of estimating position. Please refer here if you want to have long read on the different ranging types and how the algorithm works. Also, check out US Patent No US10171129 from Apple on how pulse shape information can be used by UWB receivers to improve range accuracies.
The AirTag- iPhone Ecosystem
The AirTags are supposed to be used exclusively with Apple iPhones. From iPhone 11, they have added the same U1 chip present in the AirTag on to iPhones. Courtesy of the awesome iPhone 12 teardown pics from iFixit we can see the USI Module(marked in Blue) which contains the U1 chip on the mainboard along with the A14 bionic iPhone Processor (marked in red)
From the TechInsights teardown of the iPhone 11 Pro, you can see the internals of the module and U1 chip. It uses a 16nm FinFET Semiconductor technology fabricated by TSMC. I couldn’t find many details on the Qorvo chip on there. It doesn’t show up on the Qorvo product listing, must have been a custom RF IC job for Apple.
The rest of the details of the U1 chip can be found from the FCC filings of iPhone 12 and AirTags. (PS: These documents are freely accessible on FCC website and it’s one of my favourite goto places to reverse engineer and learn the internals of products)
Since I don’t have my hands on an AirTag yet and I couldn’t find any teardowns of it on the internet this early(I will update if I do get pics later on). The rest of the things mentioned below are my deductions based on FCC filings and common sense. Internal pics of AirTags are not available on FCC yet as companies usually give a request to FCC to keep certain files confidential for 180days from when you get approved. After 180 days, FCC mandates that these be made public.
U1 chip handles the UWB communication for Apple. If you go through the filed RF testing report, you can see that the U1 chip uses two-channel frequencies at 6.5GHz and 8GHz with 4 signal configurations available for each channel setting. There is an integral patch antenna with -1.6dBi Gain @6.5GHz and -0.6dBi @8GHz. Apart from this, I am sure there will be a Bluetooth antenna and a passive NFC antenna on there. (PS: If you read through the report in detail, you will understand the FCC testing steps done to get an FCC ID for AirTags. Testing is done till 40GHz to see if there are unintended radiations till those frequencies)
Going through the internal iPhone teardown photos(this was released only a couple of weeks ago on FCC) Part 1 and 2, you can clearly see all the marked sections of the chipsets and the antennas used for UWB. I have shared snapshots below for iPhone 12 and iPhone 11 UWB antennas from FCC documents. You can clearly see that there are 3 UWB antennas in the iPhone. You will see the same antenna cut-outs in the metal back for iPhone 11 to accommodate the antennas in the Xray view.
How I think Precision finding works in the AirTag-iPhone combo is that the iPhone acts as a UWB source and it receives info from the AirTags via these three antennas. The difference in time of the signal and the angle of arrival from the 3 antennas positioned at 3 different spots is what is making the precision location finding possible to an accuracy of few centimetres.
U1 chips seem to be able to communicate with other U1 chips only. I hope Apple opens this up to be compatible with other UWB chips as well. Also, it seems UWB is not open for the developer community to develop 3rd party solutions. Documentation for Nearby Interaction seems to have come up though. I suppose it will be opened up soon.
Application Use cases
Now that the tech behind UWB is clear. Where can these low power high bandwidth systems be used? Use cases seem to be plenty for UWB in asset tracking, social distancing, payments, hands-free access control, presence-based detection systems etc. The key application is in the person/object localisation space. This opens up a plethora of use case scenarios. So much so that Apple has gone on patent many of them like Automated Access control(Patent No. US10285013, US20190135229A1) for cars and any doors. Imagine walking up to any door and it automatically opens up with UWB in your phone. There are many automotive players working on this solution. (And yes this solution is possible currently via BLE too!).
Imagine you are in a large store and you use UWB to navigate indoor to a predesignated item in a store which you found (Think about massive stores like Ikea, Walmart) online. Since UWB is fast, it’s currently used in NFL on shoulder pads of players to help in real-time fast position updates to your screen and it also helps automatic camera track the players. UWBs are going to play an important role in the future IoT tracking device space like AirTags or even in local location-based advertising as you walk by a shop. I am sure in a year’s time, you will find AR-based apps on UWB wherein you will just open up your phone camera on a scene and the item you are looking for will be shown on your screen. (Good for messy homes).
UWB vs Bluetooth
There are other competitors like the Tile who have been around for quite a while now. They use BLE for tagging and finding parts, but the accuracy will nowhere be closer to what UWB provides. BLE 4 and 5 just uses the strength of the signal(RSSI) to approximate distances. UWB has high bandwidth(>500MHz) compared to BLE(2MHz) and this improves UWB’s multipath performance significantly. Assume a closed room, with multiple UWB transceivers, multipath interference means that a receiver will get signals directly from the transmitter as well as signals which got bounced off from the walls of the room. The way to solve it is to use multiple frequencies for transmission so that chances of multipath fading at both these frequencies at the same time and position is very small. UWB’s large frequency bandwidth just fits perfectly in this use case over Bluetooth.
UWB vs Bluetooth 5.1
To be honest, this is where I am really not sure which is better. The latest Bluetooth 5.1 spec brings in the direction-finding which is based on Angle of Arrival(AoA) and Angle of Departure(AoD) of received signals similar to UWB. With a BLE antenna array, you will be able to pinpoint the location of an object. How accurate these are can only be determined when you try both these out in real life. There haven’t been any proven publication demonstrating the accuracy of direction finding by BLE 5.1. I am assuming UWB holds still a slight edge over BLE in multipath fading due to its higher bandwidth. I think accuracy will be slightly higher, but time will tell.
UWB might win out on its fight with BLE 5.1 just because of the fact that Apple has decided to push UWB in its phones. As per the usual trend, the rest of the industry will follow Apple with no questions asked. Both iPhone 11 and 12 and the latest Apple watch contains the UWB enabled U1 chip so it’s clear where Apple is putting its money.
AirTag vs Tile
Although I like Tile as a product, I am sure Tile would need to reinvent itself as Apple has come into the space with the same price points. Tile has filed an AntiTrust Lawsuit against Apple. Tile just would not be able to compete with the iPhone ecosystem as a tracker app. There will be far more people using iPhones than folks who would have Tile App installed on their phones. The tracking of items works better if there are more people using the tech anyway. Tile would probably have to move away from their BLE tech too as UWB is gaining traction.
As an Android user, I would personally love it if Apple opens up the U1 chip to communicate with other UWB chips. Decawave(Bought by Qorvo) and NXP are the major other players making UWB ICs. The NXP chips are the ones used in the latest Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra to give it UWB capabilities. But Samsung is using UWB for faster file sharing and as a smart door access card for now. The good thing about this feature is that Samsung will support other Android phones with UWB in the future. So that’s a great step in the right direction. Samsung also has its Smart Tags lineup which is similar to Tile’s using BLE. Given they have UWB chips now on their flagship devices they may also soon switch to UWB for tags as well.
Post Edit: One of my readers mentioned that Samsung is planning to sell SmartTags+ which is BLE + UWB tag very soon.
In terms of standardisation for the UWB tech, there seem to be two consortiums that have been created. UWB Alliance and FiRa Consortium. Both groups have powerful members with UWB Alliance taking members mainly from automotive space like Hyundai and Kia, Bosch and Analog Devices, whereas Fira Consortium is consumer tech-heavy with Apple, Samsung, NXP and Qualcomm. Last year these two groups came together on a joint agreement(which is nice for the tech industry as such) in which the UWB Alliance will focus on matters arising from the promotion and safeguarding of UWB technology and advancing updates of the UWB rules in the United States and the EU. The FiRa Consortium will focus on UWB use cases specification, IEEE 802.15.4z interoperability and certification.
To conclude, UWB tech seems to hold so much promise and the future looks bright for it especially when Apple to pushing it along. AirTags for me will solidify the UWB adoption market for the future. UWB tech on Phones will soon be a norm for most flagship devices. Also, a fun fact to sign off on, Apple AirTag is their cheapest gadget in terms of price yet. Cheaper even than their silicone watch straps. Now let that sink in. 🙂