Ultra-Wideband: Theorizing Pinpoint Construction Asset Tracking

Lucas Marshall
ultra wideband
Illustration: © IoT For All

If you have a smartphone—which is likely—there’s a good chance it’s an Apple iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy It’s also likely that you’ve heard the term “ultra-wideband” thrown around by both brands. But what is ultra-wideband, and could it have real application in other industries such as construction? We will discuss ultra-wideband (UWB), how it could theoretically apply to construction applications like location finding and security, and particularly how it could improve on current offerings in the market, such as barcoding/equipment tagging, Bluetooth®, and GPS tool tracking.

Defining Ultra-Wideband (UWB)

Ultra-wideband (UWB) is a wireless technology for transferring data that spreads radio energy over a very wide frequency band, with a very low power spectral density. As its name suggests, it uses a wide spectrum of several gigahertz (GHz). UWB is also characterized by high bandwidth and very high data throughput.

Previously known as “pulse radio,” a UWB transmitter sends billions of pulses across the wide spectrum frequency. A corresponding receiver then translates the pulses into data by listening for a familiar pulse sequence sent by the transmitter. Pulses are sent about once every two nanoseconds. This helps UWB to achieve real-time accuracy. In short, ultra-wideband is intended to transmit vast amounts of data over a short distance without using too much power.

Whether or not you know the exact physics involved, we have all likely experienced the woes of traditional radio systems firsthand. That’s because these systems are susceptible to electromagnetic interference—unwanted radio frequency signals that disrupt and negatively impact your signal. This interference is the downfall of traditional radio systems and what causes degraded sound or picture quality in your TV, radio, cordless telephone, or mobile device. With UWB, this interference is greatly reduced, compliments of the extremely wide bandwidth and low power spectral density.

UWB communications systems are inherently immune to detection and interception. Low transmission power means eavesdroppers would have to be extremely close to the transmitter (in the proximity of 1 meter) to be able to detect the transmitted information. This—coupled with the fact that UWB pulses are time-modulated with codes that are specific to each transmitter/receiver pair—makes UWB transmission promisingly secure, such that possible applications include military operations, even those requiring the highest degree of security

Ultra-Wideband Uses

There are three main applications of ultra-wideband, all of which could have great benefits for construction:

#1: Seamless Access Control

This is a great option for streamlining while increasing security at access points of buildings. UWB can identify an individual’s approach toward or away from a secured entrance, verify security credentials, and let the authorized individual pass through the entrance without physically presenting the credential.

#2: Location-Based Services

UWB delivers highly precise positioning, even in congested multipath signal environments. Location-based services have a wide variety of applications:

  • Allowing people to easily navigate large venues, like airports or shopping malls, or find their car in a multi-story parking garage
  • Digital marketing agencies running targeted campaigns and generate foot traffic data
  • Retailers offering personalized deals
  • Government agencies tailoring notifications
  • Entertainment venues personalizing recommendations during events

#3: Device-to-Device (Peer-to-Peer) Services

Device-to-Device, or Peer-to-Peer, is a great way to locate individuals. Providing precise relative distance and direction between two devices, like yours and a loved one’s smartphone, UWB allows for relative location finding of each other without infrastructures such as anchors and access points. This would allow you to easily find each other in crowded spaces or find misplaced items. It would also come in handy for picking out where your friends are in a sea of people.

Industry Use Cases  

While primarily used in radar imaging in the past, the ultra-wideband market has grown tremendously over the years and there are plenty of both civilian and non-civilian applications, such as:

  • Military Operations: Since its infancy, ultra-wideband has been explored in military applications due to its resistance to interference, scalability, and durability through harsh conditions and environments.

  • Consumer Electronics: We have seen it find its way into the iPhone 11 as well as brands like Samsung and Sony involved in UWB projects. devices. In fact, as the first manufacturer to integrate ultra-wideband in a smartphone, Apple’s ultra-wideband chip, appropriately named U1, is a big deal, a location chip designed with special awareness in mind.

  • IoT devices: UWB’s capacity for transferring lots of data quickly, its high degree of security, and its wide range (which makes it suitable for multiple applications) make it a natural contender for the Internet of Things (IoT). One small caveat—its short range—can be remedied through antenna design.

  • Automotive: UWB shows real promise in the automotive industry, particularly in key FOB design, where it can be used to more accurately predict proximity and the overall efficacy of these devices. In fact, automotive heavy-hitters like VW have already announced their intended use case of this exciting technology.

Ultra-Wideband for Construction

The construction space has two exceptional ultra-wideband uses:

#1: Location Finding

Ultra-wideband has real potential for asset locating in construction projects. Considering that large contractors can face upwards of $1.2 million for replacement tools and lost productivity in a year, a robust tool tracking system is key to staying profitable. Tool managers turn to a few methods to keep track of tools and equipment, and none of them are without their faults:

  • Barcoding: Also known as equipment tagging, is a simple, cost-effective way to keep tabs on a wide variety of tools and equipment. The downside: you only get visibility each time they’re scanned in.
  • GPS Trackers: We all know about GPS. Everybody uses GPS to reliably get from point a to point B, but there are also plenty of downfalls to GPS… like when you can’t get a signal. This is because GPS requires a satellite signal. Not only this, but it can be costly and draw a lot of battery.
  • Bluetooth Trackers: Bluetooth trackers draw on your mobile device’s Bluetooth connection and require your items to come within range of your device to generate a location update. Bluetooth tracking offers greater tracking functionality than having to scan a barcode each time. The biggest drawback is its lack of real-time data and precision locating capabilities of GPS.

#2: Tool & Equipment Tracking

The biggest attraction to GPS for inventory tracking is its accuracy. Its biggest downsides are its exceeding expense and its excessive battery consumption. Ultra-wideband distinguishes itself from GPS because it is able to transfer great volumes of data, with lightning speed, while also being low power. It’s also able to perform with exceptional accuracy in the harshest environments.

Just as short-range Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) works well for job sites that are off the beaten path, ultra-wideband’s range is short. This range and reception can be improved with multiple UWB receivers throughout building sites, precisely tracking tool movement down to the centimeter level. UWB tags could be embedded in a tool to track it at a job site.

#3: Security

If we consider again the security checkpoints that ultra-wideband delivers in commercial buildings, to verify security credentials, this same principle could be applied across your operations—from entering your headquarters to checking in and out tools from the crib or tool room. Its resistance to interception also helps inhibit attackers from trying to snoop in on what’s happening across your systems. This kind of security, when coupled with embedded smart tool security, brings new meaning to the term 2-factor-authentication (2FA).

A Wireless, Connected World

While it’s not necessarily the new kid on the block, ultra-wideband is finally finding its way into smartphones, and for good reason. Its pinpoint accuracy and security features lend themselves to many industries, from military ops to digital marketing campaigns to construction project management. With so many possibilities for utilization, we expect ultra-wideband to enter the construction sphere in the coming years.

Lucas Marshall
Lucas Marshall - Content Marketing Manager, Milwaukee Tool
Lucas Marshall is Content Marketing Manager for Milwaukee Tool, where he and his team raise awareness about the company’s SaaS platform, ONE-KEY™, and educate its users on inventory best practices.
Lucas Marshall is Content Marketing Manager for Milwaukee Tool, where he and his team raise awareness about the company’s SaaS platform, ONE-KEY™, and educate its users on inventory best practices.

Johnny Lienau
Johnny Lienau
Johnny is an engineer with 14 years of experience developing IoT devices. He has worked on everything from medical, consumer, military, automotive, and industrial products. There's not a wireless technology out there that he has not worked with!
Johnny is an engineer with 14 years of experience developing IoT devices. He has worked on everything from medical, consumer, military, automotive, and industrial products. There's not a wireless technology out there that he has not worked with!