This article appeared in Microwaves & RF and has been published here with permission.
Scientists say that we humans owe our large-ish brains and capacity for adaptive behavior to the rapidly changing landscape our earliest ancestors faced over the first 5 million years of existence. Coming up with new solutions to new threats (massive climate and resulting geographical changes)—and then sharing those solutions—created a path to survival.
Human brains are essentially social brains, according to Rick Potts, paleoanthropologist and director of the Smithsonian Institution Museum of Natural History’s Human Origins Program. “We share information, we create and pass on knowledge. That’s how humans are able to adjust to new situations, and it’s what differentiates humans from our earlier ancestors, and our earlier ancestors from primates.”
This adaptability has certainly been put to the test during the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re staying distant from each other, from our workplaces, and from most of the activities and places we used to frequent. We have adapted to new ways and routines—sharing information remotely, figuring out our Zoom backgrounds, and doing plenty of cashless shopping for groceries and restaurant takeout via mobile apps.
RF Technology and Connectivity
Most of our new routines involve our electronic devices and the wireless technology that connects us all, no matter where we’re located. That connectivity, enabled by RF technology, is making it possible for us to isolate and work from home safely, to visit with our families and friends on screen, and have food delivered to our doorstep. It’s enabling a new, untethered version of life and work to emerge as we rapidly adapt to the pandemic’s global disruption.
Pre-2020, it would not have been difficult to make a strong case for the importance of these technologies in our everyday lives. But now, with the pandemic, it’s difficult to imagine how we would have functioned—and even survived—without them. These technologies have certainly made many of our pandemic responses and lifestyle adjustments safer. A recent Ericsson Mobility report indicates that 83% of smartphone users claim that information and communications technology has been very helpful in coping with the impact of the pandemic.
That same Ericsson Mobility report estimates the traffic on the fixed and mobile networks increased by 20% to 100% because of COVID-19 lockdowns. The largest share was absorbed by the fixed residential network, while most mobile service providers experienced a 10% to 20% change in traffic levels on the mobile network. The mobile network impact included a large data increase for fixed-wireless-access service providers, an increase of 20% to 70% in voice traffic due to more and longer calls, and an increase in data traffic due to more bidirectional and streaming services.
Advances in RF technologies in recent years have been crucial during the pandemic. 5G, for example, delivers the speed, power, and bandwidth required for the worldwide uptick in usage. This cellular data superhighway is helping to educate a new generation of children from grade school through college with remote learning.
RF technology is also enabling and expanding Wi-Fi connectivity and advancing the Internet of Things (IoT). It does so by eliminating signal interference, extending range, and enhancing network security—all essential capabilities for working and living remotely and securely.
UWB RF Technology for Localization and Contact Tracing
What about the millions of people who can’t work remotely? Workers on the front lines, such as healthcare, agriculture, manufacturing and hospitality simply don’t have the option of doing their jobs remotely.
In the U.S. alone, only about 37% of jobs can be performed remotely, according to an April 2020 analysis by the National Bureau of Economic Research. This translates to approximately 58 million out of the 157 million working adults in the U.S. who can do their jobs remotely. This percentage varies across the country, with more service- and tourism-oriented cities like Las Vegas having an even lower percentage. The report cites a strong correlation between high-wage positions and the ability to work remotely, noting that very few jobs in agriculture, hotels, restaurants and retail could be performed remotely.
For those who must leave their homes for work—or for other essential activities like buying groceries or medical appointments—ultra-wideband (UWB) RF technology has potential as a key digital solution in the fight against COVID-19 and future viruses.
UWB is centimeter-accurate and ultra-reliable. It also has fast transmission speeds and very low latency. This makes it ideal for localizing objects and people in real time and implementing effective contact tracing—a cornerstone of preventing the spread of infectious disease.
For example, UWB can help make factories, offices, and nursing homes safer for employees, customers, and residents by providing real-time information about potential contact with someone who has COVID-19, their proximity and the duration of the contact. UWB also ensures accurate proactive social-distancing detection, which can be reported with visual or audible warnings.
Effective and rapid contact tracing requires choosing either a mass surveillance system or decentralized data localization, whereby the process of retaining and processing data occurs on users’ devices rather than a central database. Unlike technologies such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, which are being re-tooled for this new purpose, the physical properties of the UWB RF signal were specifically defined from the start to achieve real-time, ultra-accurate, ultra-reliable location and communication.
Additional Benefits of UWB
UWB can be used indoors and outdoors because it doesn’t rely on satellites. No expensive infrastructure is required. Instead, devices with UWB technology communicate directly with each other to determine location and distance. They do so by measuring the time that it takes signal pulses to travel between devices, which can be calculated based on the time-of-flight of each transmitted pulse.
UWB technology can be implemented in different ways based on the target application needs. Implementation options include two-way ranging, time difference of arrival (TDoA) and phase difference of arrival (PDoA).
Other key benefits of UWB include low power consumption (it can run off a single-cell battery for years), low cost and immunity to interference from other signals.
Besides enabling two UWB devices to determine the distance between them, this technology can be used to accurately determine a device’s location by comparing the signals from several different UWB access points. The precision with which one can locate anything is inversely proportional to the bandwidth of the signal being employed. UWB signals use at least 500 MHz of bandwidth, which is many times wider than other location-sensing technologies. This bandwidth is what enables UWB to achieve centimeter precision—a critical factor for many applications.
Such a level of accuracy makes UWB an extremely good fit for the COVID-19 contact tracing and social distancing apps being developed in many countries to help prevent the spread of the virus. These apps are usually voluntary and anonymous, and one can choose to opt in or out of sharing data.
In addition to accuracy, data encryption and overall security are crucial to any information-sharing app. UWB’s highly precise location measurements ensure users of the accuracy from where a signal comes, within centimeters. This capability also makes UWB ideal for financial applications such as wireless payment transfers, which are often limited in amount due to concerns about the transaction’s security.
This enhanced functionality would support a cashless society—or at least a “less-cash” society. Paper currency is notorious as a germ spreader because of its fibrous material and the number of hands through which it passes. Coins are only slightly better. Using less cash is one way of limiting the spread of deadly pathogens through direct contact.
A New Normal
With mid- to late-2021 looking increasingly likely as the timeframe that a COVID-19 vaccine will be widely available, the world is adapting to a new normal while we all do our best to stay healthy and safe.
Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom, who in 2014 published a well-known study on the productivity benefits of working from home, has been conducting nationwide surveys during the COVID-19 pandemic. He has published suggestions for making remote work a permanent part of the labor landscape.
According to Bloom, 42% of the U.S. labor force is now working from home full-time, and this enlarged group of work-from-home employees now accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity. “Without this historic switch to working from home, the lockdown could never have lasted. The economy would have collapsed, forcing us to return to work, reigniting infection rates. Working from home is not only economically essential, but it is a critical weapon in our fight against COVID-19 and any future pandemics.”
In addition to the efficiency benefits highlighted in Bloom’s original study, working remotely offers several other social and economic benefits. Lessening or eliminating workers’ commutes means less stress for commuters, less pollution for everyone due to fewer cars on the road, and less respiratory problems for individuals sensitive to the air quality in trains and subways—not to mention the time that can now be spent working instead of commuting.
These benefits do come with a demand for higher bandwidth, though. As companies and schools sent people home in early 2020, global internet traffic surged. More online chat, more video streaming, more visits to news sites, even more online gaming sent internet traffic jumping in countries all over the world.
As we continue to evolve and adapt as a society, wireless technologies like 5G, Wi-Fi, UWB and others will undoubtedly evolve along with us, making way for newer, faster and better variants of current versions. To keep pace, companies like Qorvo must provide a clear vision and the proven intellectual, manufacturing and financial resources to make that vision a reality.
During this unprecedented disruption, RF technology is helping us find a way through the pandemic. Wireless communications are allowing us to work even as we stay socially distant. UWB is giving us the real-time precision, range and low latency we need to stay safe in our new world.
Ciaran Connell is general manager of Qorvo Inc.