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The Wide World of UWB

While much of the current press coverage of ultrawideband (UWB) focuses on its ability to connect devices in personal area networks, a new report by ABI Research tries to show that there's a lot more to the technology.

The report, "Ultra Wideband: Standards, Technology, OEM Strategy and Markets and Application Spaces," provides a broad view of UWB's progress and its applications. Alan Varghese, ABI's Senior Director of Semiconductor Research, says it's important to keep in mind what makes UWB unique.

"Inherently, the signal has some good characteristics," Varghese says. "It's extremely wide-bandwidth, which allows you to do things like position location, and it's very resistant to multipath fading."

One of the key UWB applications that ABI's report discusses is location-finding, for inventory control or asset tracking. For tasks like these, the technology promises high precision. "With an extremely wide bandwidth signal, you can resolve to smaller and smaller magnitudes," Varghese says. "The claim is that you can resolve down to a centimeter, even from hundreds of meters away."

The same technology, Varghese says, could also be applied in smart homes to control appliances, or on highways to improve safety. "These localizer units can be placed all along a highway so that automobiles can use them as guideposts to specify location, to do some kind of automatic steering or collision avoidance," he says.

UWB's low power consumption points to another key application--battlefield sensor networks, which are also aided by the fact that UWB is difficult to jam. "The military talks about having intelligent battlefields where you might distribute some of these sensors," Varghese says. "Then you can collect information using just a AAA battery, and it will last for a year. So the low power is extremely important."

For imaging, UWB offers strong penetrating properties, which can be used both for medical applications and for public safety. "If police or fire departments want to know who's inside a particular building, they can attach a unit to the outside and it will show a person inside the room," Varghese says. "You can't resolve it to the facial features, but you can say that there's someone in there."

Companies focusing on products like these include Time Domain, Aether Wire, and Multispectral Solutions, among others. Time Domain, in particular, is focusing on through-wall imaging, with a product called RadarVision targeted specifically at law enforcement. "We have actual products in these spaces, especially when you compare them to the communications arena," Varghese says.

The fact that these applications haven't received much attention, Varghese says, is largely a reflection of the size of the market.

"When you talk about personal area networks, you're talking about cable replacement," he says. "On your desk right now, you probably have a PC, with wires going to your printer, to your scanner, to your speakers, to your fax machine. It's about replacing all of those cables."

Applications for home entertainment offers similar promise. "Again, there's a rat's nest of cables at your entertainment center, your TV, your set top box, and one day you'll want a connection between your PC and your TV," Varghese says. "So there's a good problem to solve, because the market is huge--and the attention is really according to the size of the market."