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Stacey on IoT: This startup wants to turn UWB radios into a service


If you read the top story (go on, I’ll wait) then you’re already well versed in the concept of using short-range wireless technology to determine location at centimeter or even millimeter accuracy. Currently, there is a lot of interest in the technology, but cost and difficulty have kept it out of the mainstream.

While Google and Apple are working to make fine-ranging location easier in the consumer world, a startup called Humatics is hoping to do something similar in the industrial and commercial world. The 4-year-old startup has raised more than $50 million and is now seeing UWB enter the limelight.

Humatics also illustrates some of the challenges the tech industry will face as companies try to push their own versions of fine-ranging location into the market. Humatics has worked with the IEEE standards group for Ultra-wideband (UWB) radios using the 802.15.4z standard. This is the same standard Apple’s UWB chip uses. However, Humatics has layered a proprietary protocol on top of its radios to add in features such as an extended range.

If both companies are using 802.15.4z radios Apple’s radios could theoretically talk to the Humatics radios, but some features (even essential features) would be lost. Other groups, such as the Samsung- and NXP-backed FiRa Consortium, are pushing for a UWB radio with a different protocol. Without widespread use to drive economies of scale and industry-supported protocols, UWB radios are still expensive and difficult to use.

Any company that wants to use UWB would have to figure out the software layers that let the UWB chips talk to other chips and exchange specific forms of information. They would also need software that allows the data from the chips to talk to a regular enterprise software program, such as one for location tracking. We can look at something familiar like Wi-Fi as an example. It’s not enough to have Wi-Fi radios in everything. Devices have to have ways to communicate with those radios, and routers have to run software that enables those Wi-Fi devices to get access to a network. On top of that, computers have to have software that allows people to sign into Wi-Fi networks.

UWB doesn’t have all of those software elements yet. Apple is building the software tools in-house, but it’s a giant technology firm that can hire the necessary engineers to do so. The FiRa Consortium is building the tools on behalf of its members to help advance the standard. But Humatics has already built them, which enables it to provide customers with a navigation and mapping service so they can forget about the underlying hardware and software compatibilities and just find their stuff.

Humatics CEO and Founder David Mindell says the company provides the sensors, beacons, and radios needed as part of a service contract that includes spatial navigation software. So customers, such as port authorities, robotics manufacturers, and industrial plants can forget about the physical infrastructure and just get access to software that knows where the items they want to track are at any given point in time.

That way, debates about standards, interoperability, and the software missing between the radios and the end-user application don’t matter. The real question will be what happens as projects such as FiRa Consortium start making it easier for other companies without the Humatics expertise to build similar solutions on a more open protocol. Perhaps Humatics will open up its protocol to assuage customer fears about lock-in. Or perhaps it will eventually gain enough market share to force companies who want to take advantage of granular location data to use its protocols. Or maybe it will stay a relatively niche product in the logistics industry. The industrial IoT is full of those.