explained Gadgets

All about AirTag, Apple’s native tracking device for the absent-minded

Apple’s AirTag viewed from front and from back. The front has a personalised engraving in the form of an emoji.   | Photo Credit: Apple Inc

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A year after Apple’s accidental slip-of-the-digital-tongue wherein the world got to know of the existence of their own unreleased tracking device AirTag, the official and absolutely-purposeful announcement of the same device took place at the virtual Apple Special ‘Spring Loaded’ Event on April 20.

The AirTag is the next step of Apple’s move into the smart-home and lifestyle spaces within technology and, yes, this is officially Apple’s least expensive gadget. This accessory is also the direct competitor of Tile, Samsung’s Galaxy SmartTag+ and homegrown Vaya’s Lynk.

Read More | Apple Special Event ‘Spring Loaded’: New iMacs and iPad Pro, Apple TV 4K, AirTag and purple iPhone 12's

Small (enough to fit neatly in the palm of your hand) and elegantly designed, AirTag helps keep track of and find paired items with Apple’s Find My app, and is powered by the native U1 chipset. It is also IP67 water- and dust-resistant. When activated, AirTag taps into Apple’s global Find My network and can help locate a lost item, all while claiming to keep location data private and anonymous with end-to-end encryption. Setting up AirTag is similar to that of AirPods; one can bring the device close to the iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch and the devices will connect.

A simple setup magically connects AirTag with iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch.

A simple setup magically connects AirTag with iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch.   | Photo Credit: Apple Inc

When a personal item – by then attached to a paired AirTag – is lost, a built-in speaker plays sounds to help locate the item. AirTag claims to have a year of battery life so there is a removable cover which makes it easy for users to replace the battery.

What is ultra wideband technology?

AirTag’s central technology is ultra wideband – for Precision Finding – better known as ‘radio tech of the future’. Taking footing in both Apple and Android ecosystems, ultra wideband (UWB) technology is available in the iPhone 11 and 12 series and Samsung Galaxy’s Note 20 Ultra 5G. This technology frees users from wires and enables wireless connection of multiple devices for transmission of video, audio and other high bandwidth data.

In the case of Precision Finding…
  • UWB is the core of AirTag’s Precision Finding. All this in mind, as a user moves to find a lost item paired with AirTag, Precision Finding fuses input from the camera, ARKit, accelerometer, and gyroscope, and then will guide them to AirTag using a combination of sound, haptics, and visual feedback.
  • AirTag includes support for the accessibility features built into iOS. Precision Finding uses VoiceOver, too, and can direct blind or visually-impaired users towards AirTag with directions such as, ‘AirTag is 4 feet away on your right.’

UWB employs pulses – often at 2-nanosecond intervals – at a low density of power (usually less than 1 milliWatt), lower than that of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS (global positioning systems). According to the United States’ Federal Communications Commission, a UWB device is any device with a -10 decibels fractional bandwidth that is greater than 20% or occupying at least 500 MHz of the typical 3.1 to 10.6 GHz spectrum. Meanwhile, most narrowband systems (such as Wi-Fi) occupy less than 10% of the center frequency bandwidth, and are transmitted at far greater power levels.

We will take the example of a radio system using the entire UWB spectrum, and centre about almost any frequency within that band, the bandwidth used would have to be greater than 100% of the center frequency in order to span the entire UWB frequency range.

A February 14, 2002 FCC Report and Order authorised the unlicensed use of UWB in the frequency range from 3.1 to 10.6 GHz: “We noted that most of the near-term applications for UWB technology involve relatively low powers and short operating ranges. Further, most UWB devices are intended to be mass marketed to businesses and consumers making it impractical to individually license each device. We observed that these characteristics are largely consistent with devices that operate on an unlicensed basis. Accordingly, we tentatively concluded that regulating UWB devices of the Commission’s rules would be appropriate.”

So technically speaking, Apple did not need a license to manufacture and operate AirTag.

Precision Finding with AirTag fuses input from the camera, ARKit, accelerometer, and gyroscope on iPhone to provide a more precise, directionally aware finding experience.

Precision Finding with AirTag fuses input from the camera, ARKit, accelerometer, and gyroscope on iPhone to provide a more precise, directionally aware finding experience.   | Photo Credit: Apple Inc

But in the coming years, this may not be the case. Regulatory bodies outside of the U.S. – including the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India – are still to reach a decision on the UWB regulations now and are heavily influenced by the FCC’s decision, but that does not mean they will necessarily fully adopt the FCC’s regulations.

Concerns of abuse

Apple is currently trying to get ahead of the potential mass surveillance problems posed against and by AirTag. According to the launch release by Apple, it is also “designed with a set of proactive features that discourage unwanted tracking. Bluetooth signal identifiers transmitted by AirTag rotate frequently to prevent unwanted location tracking… Additionally, if a user detects an unknown AirTag, they can tap it with their iPhone or NFC-capable device and instructions will guide them to disable the unknown AirTag.”

As more concerns develop around location tracking, Apple claims “no location data or location history is physically stored inside AirTag. Communication with the Find My network is end-to-end encrypted so that only the owner of a device has access to its location data, and no one, including Apple, knows the identity or location of any device that helped find it.”

Read More | Apple's new AirTags could factor into U.S. Senate antitrust hearing

Soon after the announcement of AirTag at the ‘Spring Loaded’ event, Tile CEO CJ Prober issued a statement: “We welcome competition, as long as it is fair competition,” he said. “Unfortunately, given Apple’s well-documented history of using its platform advantage to unfairly limit competition for its products, we’re skeptical.”

But Apple responded to the criticism in a statement to tech publication Recode: “Apple created Find My over a decade ago to help users locate and manage lost devices in a private and secure way. We have always embraced competition as the best way to drive great experiences for our customers, and we have worked hard to build a platform in iOS that enables third-party developers to thrive.”

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 12:53:27 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/technology/gadgets/apple-2021-airtag-tech-privacy-design-ultra-wideband-tech-explainer/article34391748.ece

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