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IEEE Spectrum

Where’s My Stuff? Now, Bluetooth and Ultrawideband Can Tell You

We all lose things. Think about how much time you’ve spent searching for your keys or your wallet. Now imagine how much time big companies spend searching for lost items. In a hospital, for example, the quest for a crash cart can slow a response team during an emergency, while on a construction site, the hunt for the right tool can lead to escalating delays.

According to a recent study funded by Microsoft, roughly 33 percent of companies utilizing the Internet of Things are using it for tracking their stuff. Quality location data is important for more than tracking misplaced tools; it’s also necessary for robotics in manufacturing and in autonomous vehicles, so they can spot nearby humans and avoid them.

The growing interest in locating things is reflected in updated wireless standards. The Bluetooth Special Interest Group estimates that with the updated 5.1 standard, the wireless technology can now locate devices to within a few inches. Elsewhere, Texas Instruments has built a radar chip using 60-gigahertz signals that can help robots “see” where things are in a factory by bouncing radio waves off its surroundings.

But for me, the real excitement is in a newcomer to the scene. In August, NXP, Bosch, Samsung, and access company Assa Abloy launched the FiRa Consortium to handle location tracking using ultrawideband radios (FiRa stands for “fine-ranging”). This isn’t the ultrawideband of almost 20 years ago, which offered superfast wireless data transfers over short distances much like Wi-Fi does today. FiRa uses a wide band of spectrum in the 6- to 9-GHz range and relies on the new IEEE 802.15.4z standard. The base standard is used for other IoT network technologies, including Zigbee, Wi-SUN, 6LoWPAN, and Thread radios, but the z formulation is designed specifically for securely ascertaining the location of a device.

FiRa delivers location data based on a time-of-flight measurement—the time it takes a quick signal pulse to make a round trip to the device. This is different from Bluetooth’s method, which opens a connection between radios and then broadcasts the location. Charles Dachs, vice chair of the FiRa Consortium and vice president of mobile transactions at NXP, says FiRa’s pulselike data transmissions allow location data to be gleaned for items within 100 to 200 meters of a node without sucking up a lot of power. Time-of-flight measurements allow for additional security, since they make it harder to spoof a location, and they’re so accurate, it’s obvious that a person is right there, not even a few meters away. Also, because the radio transmissions aren’t constant, it’s possible for hundreds of devices to ping a node without overwhelming it. By comparison, Bluetooth nodes can handle only about 50 devices.

FiRa’s location-tracking feature is likely to be the application that entices many companies to adopt the standard, but it can do more. The consortium also hopes that automotive companies will use it for securely unlocking car doors or front doors wirelessly. However, there is a downside: Widespread FiRa use for locks would require either a separate fob or new radios on our smartphones.

I think it’s far more likely that FiRa will find its future in enterprise and industrial asset tracking. Historically, Bluetooth has struggled in this space because of the limited number of connections that can be made. Other radios have been a bit too niche, or not well designed for enterprise use. As for location tracking for us consumers? Apple and Google are both betting on Bluetooth, so that’s where I’d place my bets, too.

This article appears in the October 2019 print issue as “Where’s My Stuff?.”

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