UWB Micro-location: Q&A with Decawave and Time Domain

UWB semiconductor maker Decawave and UWB hardware/software firm Time Domain announced a strategic partnership meant to strengthen system integrators’ ability to devise location-based solutions. Luc Darmon, Chief Marketing Officer, Decawave, and Jon Hedges, Director of Sales and Marketing, Time Domain, spoke with EECatalog about the partnership.

EECatalog: What is micro-location?

Luc Darmon, Decawave: Micro-location is location with accuracy within half a meter or so but more than that—within half a meter 99.9 percent of the time, so it’s not only accurate, it’s also very reliable in terms of measurement, and it’s real time.

EECatalog: How did the partnership come about?

Luc Darmon, Decawave: To Time Domain’s credit, they looked at Decawave’s chip and said, “Why don’t we partner? You guys have a chip, meant to be broadly used in the industry as a foundation of a location system, and we, Time Domain, can provide time of flight systems expertise, especially for use in difficult conditions such as harsh industrial environments.

Jon Hedges, Time Domain: This [strategic partnership] is about the customers and getting them the tools they need to be successful quickly and really jumpstart their development.

Luc Darmon, Decawave: There is so much more to do beyond the chip itself [for system integrators.] We are trying to facilitate this and make it easy for our customers, and clearly Time Domain sees this also as an opportunity to step in and provide their extensive systems implementation knowledge and ability to make sure the system is robust enough for the required applications.

EECatalog: Why now for this partnership?

Luc Darmon, Decawave: Five years ago we went to customers in the industrial and  consumer worlds, and people told us,  “We don’t want hear anything because we have BLE. Now, five years later, people  are telling us, “We know UWB is the way to go for microlocation.”

The bandwidth of a Bluetooth signal is such that you can’t do time of flight, because it would give you very imprecise timing if you were to measure. So what people tend to do then is what they call RSSI, which is a measurement of signal strength at a certain point from the beacon. This [method] assumes that there is a correlation, and potentially a linear correlation, between the distance and the strength of the field you can measure.

But that’s not entirely true. First, it’s not linear.  And it is absolutely untrue in conditions where people are moving and the environment is changing.   The correlation  doesn’t exist anymore. People have had huge difficulties finding a way to get somehow, some way, some sort of accuracy.  The way they do it is, they average the signal for a certain period of time—and they can get to two- to five-meter accuracy using that method.

But if you check on some iBeacon forums, or on BLE in general, you’ll see that with the time it takes to average, for 70 percent reliability with a precision of two meters, that’s five to twenty seconds.  So it’s very ,very hard to do real-time use cases and to have a good user experience with these kinds of constraints.

With [a system relying on UWB for micro-location], you get ranging and a very accurate measurement within 10 cm accuracy or less—up to a 300 meter range.  And you get this within a few hundred microseconds.

EECatalog: Who is using this technology today?

Jon Hedges, Time Domain: We have a lot of customers that are in the mobile robotics or what I would call the vehicle autonomy space. They are using our UWB ranging and localization technology to automate robots and other vehicles, such as forklifts and scissor lifts, or any type of vehicle they want to automate, and when I say automate, that means it moves independently of human control on a pre-programmed path.

So very often these vehicles are maneuvering around a warehouse or a work area. One customer is using our technology to navigate large set pieces or props on a live theatre production  completely without human involvement. These systems need to be extremely accurate and precise and reliably so, because they frequently operate in the presence of people. They need to not cause accidents or incidents with people around.

There is a very strong demand and it is only growing for precision localization indoors and in other environments, such as mines, for example, where you just can’t solve those problems with GPS and other traditional location technologies.

We’re not affected by weather conditions, precipitation or clouds of dust or things like that.  We can transmit through that, or “see” through that, in a sense. One of our legacy military customers, Lockheed Martin, is using our technology in an autonomous convoy where they’ll have a driver operating one large truck, but he’ll have a convoy of several trucks that are driverless following.

EECatalog: Anything to add before we wrap up?

Luc Darmon, Decawave: We both are UWB companies, and we know what we can achieve with UWB.  We’re going to be helping customers develop this technology.  The goal clearly is to establish UWB-based micro-location technology as a standard of the industry.  We will work with Time Domain to address customer requests for system development.  We will be recommending to partner with Time Domain if the customers choose to develop their own systems, based on Time Domain’s huge expertise.

Because the goal to focus on customers to open the micro-location market, everyone who buys a Decawave chip will have the right to use Time Domain’s patent in its application, together with basically the IP parts that are included in the chip.  In other words, we’re allowing the market to develop without constraint.

Jon Hedges, Time Domain: The deal removes a lot of the obstacles to making UWB truly ready for the big time.