An overview of the status of wireless ultra-wideband (UWB) technology is given including the status of UWB regulations, FiRa, omlox, CCC and IEEE802.15.4.

The state of uwb in 2024

The state of uwb in 2024
Samuel Van de Velde
Feb 5, 2024

UWB technology (ultra-wideband) has been around for many years, but until just a few years ago, it was still a niche technology and only adopted by a small number of pioneering companies. Recent market growth numbers show a steep increase in UWB’s success being adopted in consumer products like smartphones, smartwatches, smart home devices, as well as in automotive and in industrial real-time location systems (RTLS).

2024 will likely see continued adoption of the technology that is well on its way to becoming the worldwide standard. In 2024 UWB continues to be the key wireless technology for spatial awareness and location-based services. It is obvious that UWB is here to stay.

UWB has been acknowledged and praised for its technical capabilities and benefits. However, this alone does not guarantee the wide adoption of a technology. In this post we cover the different non-technical aspects that are foundational to the commercial success of the technology.

In this overview we'll cover:

1. Main applications of ultrawideband technology

Below, we list the three major applications of UWB in 2024.

UWB in consumer products

Apple UWB products for consumer asset tracking

By far the largest adoption of UWB has been seen in consumer products, primarily in the smartphone market. In 2023, approximately 70% of all UWB chips shipped were embedded in a smartphone. Apple is clearly leading the way and has added UWB capabilities to a host of consumer products in its ecosystem to support so-called ‘spatial awareness’ for their devices. However, other major smartphone vendors like Samsung and Xiaomi have followed suit to adopt UWB in their latest models.

At the basis of this is the FiRa Consortium (Fine Ranging) which is dedicated to transforming the way we interact with our environment by enabling precise location awareness for people and devices. The FiRa consortium has developed a standard that describes a common set of protocols to enable applications such as physical access control, smart home, indoor navigation, social distancing, or asset tracking.

In 2023, FiRa version 2.0 was launched which enables many new applications. It is therefore expected that we’ll see a wide range of new consumer products coming to market taking advantage of this new standard. Especially in the market for smart locks we expect some new products coming to market taking advantage of UWB accuracy and security resulting in an improved experience using these systems with your smartphone.

UWB in industrial RTLS

By nature of the accurate ranging capabilities of UWB, the technology has been an obvious technology for Real-time location systems. With UWB technology, RTLS systems can provide real-time positioning with an accuracy of 10 to 30cm even in the most challenging environments. UWB RTLS is primarily utilized in the mining industry, manufacturing, distribution but also in healthcare, agriculture, retail or even sports.

Before UWB became a mainstream technology due to the smartphone adoption, UWB RTLS was the main use-case driver for the technology. However, adoption of the technology in RTLS has been much slower as compared to the fast pace of consumer products. Adoption in an industrial context tends to be a slow and incremental progress. However, the days that UWB still had to prove itself as a reliable technology in challenging environments have past. Today, UWB RTLS is considered the golden standard for accurate indoor positioning.

Around the same time that FiRa started in 2019, another standard emerged called the Omlox standard. This standard was specifically aimed for industrial RTLS applications to provide interoperability in between RTLS system vendors, as well as RTLS (software) applications. While the initial version of the standard was never brought to market, the recent release of Omlox version 2 in 2023 now slowly paves the way for wider adoption of the standard.

UWB in automotive

Automotive is another (upcoming) application domain for UWB where the technology is embedded in the vehicles to support a range of functionalities. Major manufacturers such as BMW, Mercedes, Volkswagen, GM and recently also Tesla have already launched vehicles with UWB, or are actively working on it.

Image (c) Car Connectivity Consortium

The ‘smart entry’ functionality, which intelligently locks and unlocks a vehicle based on the location of the car key, is a major driver for the technology. However, the upcoming regulation for child presence detection(CPD) could potentially become an even bigger driver for UWB technology. To support this capability, UWB ranging will not suffice and will have to rely on the UWB radar capabilities for which an array of new chips will be launched to market.

At the basis of the adoption is again an international standard. More notably, the Car Connectivity Consortium, which has standardized the UWB protocols to be used to support interoperability between car keys from different car manufacturers. In 2021, the latest version of the standard, CCC car key version 3.0 was released.

2. UWB chip interoperability

IEEE standard

Wireless applications prosper best within the sphere of industry standards. Standards offer the freedom to purchase from a larger pool of suppliers, competitive pricing, a common technology that eases design decisions and inventory requirements, and most importantly, standards allow devices or chips from different vendors to interoperate, creating a truly future-proof solution.

The benefits of communication standards are important for large technology and consumer electronics companies to guarantee the lowest cost and continuity of supply, thereby avoiding the single-source trap. This ‘peace of mind’ aspect is the main blessing of standards that makes large companies big supporters. Furthermore, a standard is usually based on a collective experience and cooperation which increases reliability and long-term availability. A good standard also creates an ecosystem of multiple vendors (competing on quality and price), all helping to further bolster UWB adoption and future-proofing.

IEEE 802.15.4 standard versions have impacted UWB

IEEE has recognized the need to standardize UWB technology for use in personal area networks (PANs). It has established the IEEE 802.15.4a, released in 2007, the first standard to include UWB and to define both the MAC (link layer) and PHY (physical layer) within the OSI model (which defines the 7 layers of network architecture). These additions introduced new features that the previous 802.15.4 standard was lacking to be able to support UWB: higher data throughput and precise ranging. The next standard versions IEEE 802.15.4-2011 and IEEE802.15.4-2015 were released to enable backward compatibility and introduce both the LRP & HRP (low rate pulse & high rate pulse) UWB PHY. This version is still used in many of the commercially available UWB devices today.

In August 2020, the IEEE 802.15.4z was released with a focus on enhanced ranging capabilities, high increase of security, and enhanced power consumption, indeed all characteristics needed to further enhance and optimize UWB solutions. The next expected release is planned for 2025 with version IEEE 802.15.4ab. It will support new rule sets to expand use cases, new smartphone features such as streaming audio, increased security through smaller packages, and significantly lower power.

As a conclusion, the IEEE standard not only crafts stability and interoperability, it also propels the UWB feature set that translates into benefits from which the UWB devices and their applications can prosper.

3. Ultra wide band regulations

The clear definitions from the IEE802.15.4 standard specify three frequency bands, yielding 16 radio channels in total. Regulation has followed and every country’s regional regulatory authorities define which of these bands can or cannot be used geographically, resulting in well-defined UWB regulations. The new generation of UWB chipsets allows new regions, such as Japan, to be covered with the same technology. For the consumer applications, UWB channels 5 (at 6GHz) and 9 (at 8GHz) have been selected by FiRa as the main UWB channels to be used as they allow global usage.

UWB RTLS applications still tend to use the lower frequency channels as they provide the highest possible range with UWB technology, which directly impacts the amount of infrastructure needed for an RTLS installation. However, future systems will likely also adopt UWB channel 9 to be used in certain geographies such as Japan and South-Korea. Furthermore, UWB channel 5 is increasingly being challenged ever since WiFi was allowed to utilize the same frequency band resulting in interference with any UWB system. Currently WiFi at 6GHz (introduced in Wifi 6E) is still limited in its adoption, but it is expected to grow in the coming years.

Upcoming changes to UWB regulation

In 2024 some major changes to UWB regulations are expected, although this has yet to be officially confirmed. In Europe, the regulators are planning to relax UWB regulations as it was deemed too strict and limiting. The relaxed regulations will allow higher power levels for transmitting which would effectively increase the range of any UWB system. Furthermore, outdoor use will be allowed for certain frequency channels. These changes are expected mid 2024 and would significantly support UWB applications, primarily in UWB RTLS where range and outdoor usage are very important. Similar discussions are ongoing for US, although no clear decision has been made yet.

In contrast to Europe, China is planning to ban the use of the lower frequency channels for UWB. This would bring the regulations more in line with other Asian regions such as Japan and South-Korea, where only the higher frequency channels are allowed. This pushes most systems to using UWB channel 9 in these areas. Further clarifications regarding Chinese regulations are expected mid 2024.

Instances like the UWB Alliance help to support UWB adoption by actively voicing the concerns and recommendations of all UWB stakeholders towards the regulators of various countries.

4. UWB chip ecosystem

With the standardization maturing to guarantee future-proof solutions, it was Decawave (currently Qorvo) to release the first commercial UWB radio chip in 2013 to support the IEEE 802.15.4 - 2015 version, which is still heavily used in RTLS and IOT applications.

The most recent IEEE 802.15.4z, optimized for consumer applications and released at the end of 2020 is supported today by Qorvo’s latest generation chipset and by NXP. Additional semiconductor vendors are ready to complete the list: Apple, producing its own U1 and U2 UWB chips (the “U” stands for UWB), ST Micro, and imec have all invested heavily in the development of UWB chips, which further confirms that UWB is the rising star in the firmament. In 2024, well over 400 million UWB chips are expected to be shipped. And we expect more new chip companies to enter the market, including some Chinese semiconductor companies aiming at some specialized UWB applications.

UWB is on the verge of becoming the next essential component technology, like GPS, WiFi and Bluetooth before it. Already shipping in millions of smartphones and cars, and across more than 40 other verticals, UWB is enabling accurate indoor location services, secure communications, context-aware user interfaces and advanced analytics, making it ideally suited to Industry 4.0 applications.
Eric Creviston, President of Qorvo

It is clear that the landscape of UWB chips available for commercial use is rapidly expanding. Each of the vendors has developed radio chips to support specific IEEE 802.15.4 standard versions and the different standard alliances (applications) that operate in different communication channels. The succeeding chipset product development cycles result in lower power consumption, smaller form-factor, and support for a broader range of features.

Technologies will never become globally successful when based on an exclusive offering. The industry adoption is fueled by the variety of semiconductor offerings to choose from to allow competition (on specs and features) to avoid the much-loathed vendor lock-in and to allow future interoperability between different UWB devices. And obviously, as the production of UWB chips continues to ramp up over time it holds the promise of a lower price.

5. Ultra wide band application standardization

Multiple standards have been defined for UWB communication. Apart from the technical standard IEEE 802.15.4, several standardization bodies, each with their specific focus, business scope and goals, operate to bring standardization to UWB. Technologies only endure when they are backed by a robust, quality-driven infrastructure that enables rapid expansion, providing a favorable regulatory and spectrum management landscape to secure and maximize UWB growth.

Omlox - Fira - CarConnectivityConsortium
How the Omlox, FiRa and Car Connectivity Consortium focus on different types of devices.

FiRa Consortium

The FiRa Consortium, originally focusing on peer-to-peer applications between smartphones and various (consumer) devices. To date, the FiRa Consortium boasts more than 100 members across various categories. Among the initial sponsor members were ASSA ABLOY Group (HID Global), NXP Semiconductors, Samsung Electronics, and Apple.

In October 2023, version 2.0 of the FiRa standard was released which adds a significant amount of new use-cases to the standard including Point & Trigger Control for smart homes, Indoor navigation, social distancing, Tap-free mobile payment and more. The next version is expected for October 2024, which will include use-cases such as geofencing and location awareness.

Omlox Consortium

Omlox is an open standard for Real-Time Location Systems (RTLS). The Omlox standard is managed by the PI organization, which also managed popular industrial standards such as Profibus, Profinet and IO link. To date, the Omlox standard brings together over 60 partners and members including Qorvo, STMicroelectronics, Amazon AWS, Siemens, and Pozyx. Over 300 professional use-cases have been defined, primarily in Production, Logistics, process industry, healthcare and retail.

The Omlox consortium has developed two standards:

  • Omlox Core zone: A standard for UWB location systems defining how tags and infrastructure communicate in order to allow interoperability between RTLS tags and anchors of different vendors.
  • Omlox hub: A standardized interface for retrieving location information from a wide variety of localization techniques, such as UWB, RFID,5G, BLE, WiFi, and GPS.

Both standards are currently in version 2.0, which were released in 2023. Early 2024, Omlox will launch a certification program to allow products to be omlox certified.

Car Connectivity Consortium

The Car Connectivity Consortium, also CCC, is dedicated to bringing automotive and consumer technology industries together to future-proof vehicle access using smart-devices. The consortium has over 200 members companies collaborating to develop global standards and solutions for smart-devices and in-vehicle connectivity while reducing market fragmentation of our technologies. Some notable members are Apple, Google, NXP as well as a large amount of major car manufacturers.

The CCC utilizes a variety of technologies such as BLE, UWB and NFC in order to provide reliable solutions. The latest Car Key version 3 v1.1 was released in 2022. Since then, several plug-fests have been organized to bring together different car and smartphone manufacturers to test and demonstrate the use and interoperability of the UWB-driven keys. In December 2023 the CCC launched its certification program.

The future will tell which of these standards will win the market but for now, it seems that their focus is clearly defined in different application spaces and different feature sets in order not to compete. To date, the FiRa consortium has picked up the most speed as it drives the biggest volume of UWB chip sales. The Omlox standard is yet to prove itself as the initial version was limited as a proof-of-concept. With Omlox version 2.0, we will finally see Omlox certified products hitting the market in the next years.

Given that the different standards cater to different use-cases, it may be that they will forever exist next to each other. In the coming years, we may expect these standards to come closer to each other in order to guarantee coexistence of the different standards or potential combined use-cases. An example of this was the announcement in November 2023 of CCC and FiRa collaborating to form the Joint Ultra-wideband MAC PHY Working Group (JUMPWG) aimed at developing and maintaining the UWB technology specifications used in the CCC Digital Key.

6. Recent advancements on UWB and outlook for 2024

The year 2023 has been an important year for UWB in which all major application standards (FiRa, omlox and CCC) released a new version of their standard. These new versions, which leverage existing IEEE standard (and hence UWB chipsets) enable a large set of new applications of the technology. In turn, market research reports indicate that, for the first time since long, UWB chip sales did not increase year-over-year in 2023. A potential reason for this could be that some vendors have waited on the new application standards to release. It is therefor expected that 2024 will again show meaningful growth with new UWB chips and products coming to market. For 2024 we can expect some important changes regarding regulations in both Europe and China. Primarily the changes in the European market can potentially increase the viability of UWB RTLS applications as range can be increased and outdoor usage will now become permitted.

In the longer term we can see increased attention to UWB radar which would allow presence and health detection of people without requiring them to carry any electronics. This has some applications in automotive for child presence detection, but also in smart home devices. Furthermore, with the upcoming new IEEE 802.15.4ab in 2025, we will see new generation of UWB chips hit the market with further reduced power consumption, increased security and novel support for streaming audio. Regarding application standards, we may see increased collaboration in between the different standards given that they are to a large extent very complimentary. Whether or not that will succeed, only time will tell.

Samuel Van de Velde

Written by

Samuel Van de Velde

Samuel Van de Velde

CTO & Co-Founder at Pozyx

Samuel is an electrical engineer with a strong interest in location technology. Skilled in Entrepreneurship, Public Speaking, Product Management, internet of things (IoT), and Machine Learning. After graduating In 2010, he joined the Department of Telecommunications and Digital Information Processing (TELIN) to pursue a Ph.D. degree on the topic of collaborative indoor localisation. In 2015, he founded the spin-off company Pozyx out of that research.