How Ultra-Wideband Technology Is Changing Building Access Control

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. One day you’re going to have nothing but your phone in your pocket. No more keys or access cards. And the door will just open when it’s supposed to, like magic, but even more magical.

But then you try it out.

Unfortunately, you find that the only magic involved is in trying to observe some semblance of a consistent or reliable experience with your phone held 2 inches away from a sensor. Not quite magical and usually slower than the product it aims to replace.

The problem though is not with the idea, but rather with the limitations of the only viable technology for getting there. Although using a pair of pliers to remove a nut can work, using the appropriate wrench is superior. And in much the same way, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) alone is woefully inadequate for measuring distance. As a result, access control doesn’t look much different today than it did 40 years ago. The innovations have largely centered around beating BLE into submission for the use cases a little better than the last product did. Square peg meets round hole. But what if I told you there was a round peg and it’s already here?

What is UWB?

Ultra-Wideband (UWB) is a radio technology similar to Bluetooth or WiFi. However, UWB has a number of features that set it apart. UWB provides highly accurate positioning that is also remarkably secure. For example, if you were to estimate distance using BLE you could expect an accuracy on the order of 3 feet (one meter). With UWB the accuracy is on the order of four inches (10 centimeters). It can also transmit data at high speeds over short distances wirelessly. The transmitter in a UWB system uses very little power compared to comparable solutions using other technologies. UWB also co-exists nicely with the unlicensed wireless technologies, making it poised to take center stage over the coming two to three years.

Perhaps even more impressive though, is just how Ultra-Wideband radios are able to not interfere with other communication technologies like Bluetooth and WiFi. If you have devices using these technologies on your property and they are both using 2.4GHz to communicate, they will likely experience some level of interference. However, UWB sends very fast and repeated bursts of RF energy that are spread very broadly across the spectrum. The spectral energy of UWB is also distributed broadly resulting in very low transmit power levels at any specific frequency. This is important because it means the technology can co-exist with other existing critical infrastructure and do so in a way that doesn’t take anything away from the capabilities currently deployed.

UWB in access control

In applying UWB technology in the context of access control, the fundamental question is “Does this user intend to enter this door?” And the solution needs to make that experience of moving between secured spaces, through that door, an effortless one.

UWB addresses many of Bluetooth’s short-comings. It allows for determination of range to an accuracy of 4 to 6 inches. It achieves higher precision distance estimation by measuring how long it takes for the signal to travel between devices as opposed to comparing power levels. This combined with secure and highly precise timestamping make foolproof access control possible. This technique is called time of flight and it is a superior technique for distance estimation. Precise localization allows for an elevated tier of premium security with higher assurance of correctly predicting user behaviors. 

The Catch

UWB is not a magic bullet and it takes more than sound technology to effect change. The biggest practical risk to adoption will be interoperability. There are multiple UWB standards bodies working on different facets of this – from FCC regulations for the spectrum rules all the way to ecosystem compatibility among competing products and across industries. Adoption and access to use the technology from mobile phone manufacturers will likely be the largest gating influence on where and how the technology can be realized. Although the specifics of this are emerging, there are some positive signs that the technology is here to stay. For one, you may very well already have a UWB capable smartphone right now. As of this writing, UWB radios are present in multiple Apple devices for several iPhone models as well as the most recent Apple Watch. Samsung has at least two announced mobile devices with support and Xiaomi has also demonstrated concepts with the technology as well.

As economies of scale continue to drive component pricing down across supply chains, UWB capabilities will start popping up in products faster than you probably expect, likely within the next 1 – 2 years. For PropTech that means new experiences in access control that require far less interaction with a door for it to do what you expect. This will enable healthier buildings, useful and precise social distancing, indoor navigation that works, and drastically change the way you make purchases with your phone. UWB is poised to enable significant new product experiences and this is just the beginning. I hope you’re ready.

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