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NXP Looks to Enter New Era With Ultra-Wideband Chip

NXP Semiconductors has started selling an ultra-wideband chip that enables smartphones and mobile devices to pinpoint each other's location, ahead of the first product launches in the second half of 2020. Trying to establish the short-range radio as an industry standard, NXP is hoping to tap demand from key players in the smartphone market following the news that Apple added a custom ultra-wideband chip to the new iPhone.

Ultra-wideband is capable of measuring the distance between devices and telling them where they’re located relative to each other much more accuracy and much more securely than WiFi and Bluetooth. NXP’s short-range radio technology gets coordinates by calculating the time it takes for signals to travel between devices—for instance, a pair of smartphones that are both equipped with the new chip, called SR100T.

"This is a new type of connectivity delivering capabilities that no other technology has," said Charles Dachs, NXP's vice president of mobile transactions. While GPS is capable of giving your general location on a map, UWB can work out the distance between devices 10 to 100 times more accurately. It is also less subject to interference from walls, people and other obstacles that can disrupt the positioning signals used by Bluetooth.

NXP said the chipset—code named Helios—is supposed to be integrated with its near-field communications (NFC) ICs, which are used to enable wireless payments in smartphones, and secure elements (SE) that safeguard secret keys and other confidential data. That creates an “end-to-end” solution, Dachs said. NXP is shipping the new chip to early customers and expects the first products to launch in the second half of 2020.

NXP is counting on demand in the high-end smartphone market, where it holds more than 50% of the market share in NFC. By offering UWB as part of an integrated solution with NFC and SE hardware, it's lowering the bar for phone makers to embrace the positioning power of ultra-wideband. Dachs estimates more than 50% of all smartphones could be shipped with UWB in five years, opening the door to broader deployments.

“Then it becomes relevant to build this entire ecosystem around UWB,” he said.

But the company is not stopping at smartphones and other mobile devices. NXP plans to launch another ultra-wideband solution in 2020 for the Internet of Things market, where it sees the short-range radio system standing out from Bluetooth and WiFi. "It has the ability to locate very precisely out in the world other devices with UWB technology, and that gives it a completely different dimension,” Dachs told Electronic Design.

“There are applications across the board in automotive, industrial and the IoT where these contextual capabilities are opening up a range of use cases,” he said. The radios could be slapped on connected locks that open when you approach and close behind you, smart lighting that follows you from room to room, or thermostats that adjust the temperature depending on who enters a room—all without having to tap a smartphone app.

Rafael Sotomayor, NXP's senior vice president of mobile, said in a statement the uses for ultra-wideband in the IoT are among the “most highly anticipated developments and NXP is the first out of the gate to bring seamless, interoperable experiences with an all-in-one solution for mobile devices." The SR100T "is an evolution of our secure connected offerings and is designed to complement existing standards like Bluetooth and WiFi."

Apple also introduced its own ultra-wideband chip in the iPhones 11 lineup, in what industry analysts called a game-changing move for the future of the standard. The Apple-designed U1 chip is used to pinpoint the relative location of nearby iPhones, adding contextual awareness to sharing files over AirDrop. Apple said you can point your iPhone 11 at another U1-enabled iPhone to have the device promoted to the top of your AirDrop interface.

Investing in custom silicon signals that Apple has broader ambitions for ultra-wideband, analysts say. "If you combine these capabilities with all the other types of connectivity in the iPhone, there are lots of possibilities,” Wayne Lam, principal analyst for mobile devices at IHS Markit, told ED last month. “The fact they're investing in differentiated hardware is not insignificant. They're betting that they can do more with it."

Ultra-wideband devices are able to locate each other by sending up to one billion signals per second—or once every nanosecond—and measuring the time it takes these pulses to travel to other devices in the surrounding area and return to the starting point. The result—the time of flight, or ToF—is used to figure out the distance between devices. The angle of the return signal is also calculated to get more exact coordinates.

Ultra-wideband started out more than a decade ago targeting short-range high-data rate transmissions. But it lost the battle to become a top standard for local wireless networking on the scale of WiFi and Bluetooth. It has struggled since then to shake its perception as a solution in search of a problem. Apple said that the custom U1 hardware in the iPhone 11 is the first-ever use of ultra-wideband positioning in a smartphone.

But ultra-wideband technology has some unique and appealing abilities. NXP’s new chip, for instance, can be used to pinpoint the relative location of other devices within 10-cm compared to the 1-m to 5-m range accuracy using WiFi and Bluetooth. Ultra-wideband radios can locate coordinates with shorter delays than Bluetooth—up to 100 times per second—and transfer up to 27 Mbps of data over short distances.

NXP said it accomplished the more accurate positioning in part by adding more antennas—the first for figuring the distance to the device (ToF) and the second for measuring the angle of the return signals—also called the angle of arrival, or AoA—with around 3° of accuracy. The chip uses very wide channels of 500 MHz in the 6 GHz to 9 GHz bands. WiFi uses 20 MHz of bandwidth, while Bluetooth broadcasts with 2 MHz wide channels.

Ultra-wideband uses such a small amount of power and pumps out such short pulses that it's less vulnerable to interference. Other short-range radio systems, including Bluetooth and WiFi, measure distance using the relative strength of the signal, which can be disturbed by walls, people and other obstacles indoors and outdoors. UWB can also evade interference from the wide range of RF ICs crammed in smartphones today.

NXP’s new chip is “forward and backward compatible” with the IEEE 802.15.4 standard to help it connect to ultra-wideband chips from other vendors. That includes the latest 802.15.4z standard, which Apple’s U1 chipset also uses to get its relative location in the world. Ultra-wideband—based on the legacy 802.15.4a standard—is largely used today for tracking tools and parts around factories and warehouses.

NXP is also one of the backers of the FiRa organization, which is developing a range of standards and a program to guarantee compatibility for ultra-wideband devices. Other members include Samsung, the No.1 player in the smartphone market; Bosch, the world's largest auto parts vendor; Assa Abloy, the world's largest lock manufacturer, and subsidiary HID Global, which sells secure access systems such as electronic card readers.

Netherlands-based NXP is also working with the global auto industry on using ultra-wideband as an alternative to Bluetooth in wireless car keys. One key advantage of ultra-wideband is that it combats so-called relay theft, in which the signals used to unlock the vehicle and enable the push-button start are intercepted and cloned by criminals. That allows them to unlock and start the vehicle even when the keys are not nearby, NXP said.

With ultra-wideband, any attempt to intercept the car’s communications delays the return signal from the key fob, and that stops the car from unlocking. The cars of the future could also use ultra-wideband radios to unlock themselves when you walk up to any of the doors or the truck and lock themselves when you walk away—without touching your keys. Volkswagen plans to use ultra-wideband for theft protection in cars by late 2019.

NXP is also expanding its footprint in other types of wireless technology for automotive, industrial and the IoT. NXP agreed to acquire Marvell’s wireless connectivity business, including its WiFi and Bluetooth assets, for $1.75 billion in May, and the deal should close by the first quarter of 2020. The company plans to market Marvell's WiFi and Bluetooth chips to its much broader customer base. NXP has more than 25,000 customers.

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