Ultra Wideband: everything about accurate location tracking

The U1 chip makes it possible

Apple has big plans for Ultra Wideband technology and the U1 chip. What is UWB and can you use it? In this explanation you can read everything about the Ultra Wideband chips in the iPhone, Apple Watch and other devices.

Apple develops its own chips, with which new technologies are possible. The U1 chip is a good example of this: it enables Ultra Wideband (UWB) for accurate location determination. The U1 chip was first used in the iPhone 11 series and can also be found in the Apple Watch. In the future, Apple would like to apply Ultra Wideband in many more devices. But what can you do with it and what are Apple’s plans?

  • What is Ultra Wideband?
  • U1 chip
  • Opportunities
  • Appliances
  • Frequencies and technical details
  • Why Ultra Wideband?
  • Future

You can also turn off the Ultra Wideband feature on iPhone if you are concerned about your privacy or its battery consumption.

What is Ultra Wideband?

Ulta Wideband is an advanced technology to measure the relative distance to other devices. Like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, UWB works with radio waves. An important difference is that UWB works at very close range and is much more accurate. UWB works with frequencies higher than 500 MHz.

Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are not very suitable for measuring location accurately. You can only know whether a signal is strong or weak. A strong signal is closer, but that’s where it ends. With Ultra Wideband you also know where other devices are located. UWB measures how long it takes for the signal to reach the other device and to be bounced back. Apple calls this “GPS, but at the living room level.”

The advantage is that you can accurately determine the location of a device. The disadvantage is that the range is limited to a few tens of meters. Ultra Wideband has been around for a while, but it’s only now that the technology has made its way to smartphones.

U1 chip Apple website explanation

U1 chip and Ultra Wideband

Apple first introduced this technology in the iPhone 11 series. These models had a U1 chip for the first time. Apple did not want to disclose many details, including future applications. Becomes estimated that the U1 chip is accurate to 10 to 30 centimeters.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra also supports UWB technology. Unfortunately, because Apple uses its own chip, UWB applications are not compatible with Android-devices.

U1 chip with Ultra-Wideband.

Possibilities of Ultra Wideband: what do you need UWB for?

Very clever, but what good is it to you as a user? Apple hasn’t revealed much about that yet. At the moment there is only one application, namely sending files more easily via AirDrop. By pointing the iPhone at the iPhone with which you want to exchange files, you can quickly identify the correct device.

If you want to AirDrop a photo, link or something else to someone and they don’t appear in the list, tilt your iPhone towards the recipient iPhone to find it faster.

Ultra Wideband can also be used for indoor navigation, although there is currently no application for this on the iPhone. Developers do not yet have access to the U1 chip and cannot use it. Apple may have many more plans with Ultra Wideband in the (near) future.

AirDrop U1 with Ultra Wideband.

Which devices are suitable for UWB?

The following devices are currently equipped with a U1 chip and suitable for Ultra Wideband applications:

  • iPhone 11
  • iPhone 11 Pro

  • iPhone 11 Pro Max

  • Apple Watch Series 6

We expect that in the long run many more Apple devices will get the U1 chip and Ultra Wideband. On its own website, Apple already reveals the arrival of “other Apple devices with a U1 chip”. For example, there is talk of Ultra Wideband in the HomePod mini and Apple TV. Both devices could then act as a kind of UWB base station to enable new applications. Based on your exact location indoors, certain HomeKit scenes can be activated.

Frequencies and technical details of Ultra Wideband

There are already other wireless standards that work at close range, such as NFC and Bluetooth Low Energy. UWB has unique properties and has its own advantages and disadvantages, compared to existing technologies.

UWB works in the spectrum between 3.1GHz and 10.6GHz and has the special feature that it works with pulses. Other wireless transmission methods use different powers, frequencies or phases to transmit data and do not work with pulses.

Broad spectrum needed

A disadvantage of a pulse-based method is that it requires more spectrum to work reliably. Hence the name ‘ultra wideband’. The frequency band is usually 500MHz wide, while with Wi-Fi this is between 20MHz and 80MHz and with 4G networks between 5MHz and 20MHz. Because of this broad spectrum, data can be sent quickly and reliably.

Fast data transfer

An advantage of UWB is that the data can be sent quickly, with a speed of 4Mbps to 675Mbps or more. This depends on the frequency. For comparison, you can achieve a speed of 2.1Mbps with Bluetooth and a maximum of 424Kbps with NFC. However, it is not as fast as WiFi 6 which can go up to 2Gbps speed.

Wireless technologies are often limited because they use only a narrow bandwidth to avoid interference. UWB can get around this by operating at very low powers. Other wireless technologies are not affected because it is so low in power that it is not even noticed as noise.

Ultra Wideband iPhone 11 Pro

Measure distances with UWB

An advantage of Ultra Wideband’s pulse-based character is that you can measure distances. This is done with so-called time-of-flight methods. If you know how long it took to transfer the data, you can calculate the distance between sender and receiver. The accuracy of UWB is 10 cm or less. With Bluetooth and WiFi, an accuracy of up to 1 meter is often possible. In this way, it is very suitable for, for example, unlocking house doors and car doors, finding lost items and sending files at a short distance.

Why Ultra Wideband?

Many applications are already possible with NFC and Bluetooth. Then why do you still need Ultra Wideband? Bluetooth works on the 2.4GHz band, making it very suitable for indoor use. However, it is on the same frequency as WiFi signals, which can cause interference. Due to the broad spectrum of UWB you have less chance of interference. The range is slightly shorter than with Bluetooth.

NFC operates at a frequency of 13.56MHz but has a very short range of 4cm, making it unsuitable for many other indoor applications. However, NFC is very suitable for contactless payments, relatively cheap and energy efficient. NFC will therefore remain in use for mobile payments for the time being.

UWB is suitable for situations where a high data rate, fast location determination, accuracy and little interference are required. This makes it ideal for applications that need to be very secure, such as opening doors.

U1 chip with Nearby Interaction framework in a game of Pong.

Future of Ultra Wideband

In the future, Apple probably wants to use this technology for the AirTag. This will be a tracker to attach to, for example, your key ring, suitcase or wallet. Because Ultra Wideband can track so accurately, it is extremely suitable for a tracker. You can therefore see accurately to centimeters where your devices are. That way you can, for example, receive a signal when someone moves or takes your MacBook at home.

Apple is also investigating the possibilities of unlocking the ‘Apple Car’ with your iPhone. By using Ultra Wideband, the car knows whether you are actually at the car. For example, nobody can open the car when it is in the driveway, for example. Once you are in the car, the car can be started automatically.

Apple Car with Ultra Wideband.

Also check the overview of Apple’s own chips, including the series A chips and other processors.

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