MKSemi raises $12.8 million, unveils its first UWB SoC

Startup Mauna Kea Semiconductors (MKSemi), a developer of low-power ultra-wideband (UWB) products, has closed $12.8 million of Series Pre-A+ funding, led by Lightspeed China Partners and other investors including Qiming Venture and Ivy Capital. The company also announced the launch of its first device, the MK8000 UWB system-ON-a-chip (SoC) for high-precision location, and a new partnership with Infineon Technologies and ThinkSeed Systems.

The company also has several key strategic investors, including Oppo, MediaTek, Gaorong Capital, China Fortune-Tech Capital, and SV Tech Ventures. One of MKSemi’s strategic investors has a connection to an IC fab, which is expected to help the startup secure capacity, said Thomas Chen, MKSemi’s chief marketing officer.

MKSemi was founded in 2019 by Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur Dr. Yifeng Zhang, president and CEO; Vasanth Gaddam, chief architect, and Dr. Allen Li, vice president of engineering. All three executives came from NXP Semiconductors via the company’s acquisition of startup Quintic Corp., a developer of low-power Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) SoCs.

In 2013/2014 Quintic developed a very successful and lowest power BLE chipset, which led to the acquisition by NXP, said Chen, who also is a former employee of NXP via the Quintic acquisition. One of the reasons why the team decided to start Mauna Kea Semiconductors and focus on UWB was because of the limitations of Bluetooth for high-precision location, he added.

The team actually started a workgroup inside Bluetooth SIG, he said, however due to the technology limitation of the Bluetooth protocol itself, it was “really hard to realize high-precision location using Bluetooth.”

So UWB became a better fit, and timing-wise it worked well because Apple was thinking the same thing and in 2019 it launched the iPhone 11 Pro with UWB, he added.

Complementary technologies

The key benefits of the UWB technology include its security and anti-jamming features and large channel capacity for high bandwidth and high data rates, as well as the ability to work in noisy environments and handle multipath for high-accuracy location and ranging applications. It is also interoperable with other existing wireless technologies.

MKSemi said Bluetooth and UWB wireless technologies complement each other and together will create an enhanced solution for spatial awareness.

Chen cited Apple’s AirTag products as an example, which use a combination of Bluetooth for proximity finding and UWB for precision finding. When the device is further out Bluetooth will provide that general direction and then when the device is in a closer range, UWB kicks in to provide the precise location, he said.

“On top of that because Bluetooth is everywhere and in so many of these devices we can use Bluetooth for data transfer for firmware upgrades, for configuration, and for any of these types of usage,” Chen said.

UWB is fast-becoming a major short-range wireless technology in a variety of consumer electronics applications, despite being in the early stages of ecosystem development, according to ABI Research. Adoption also is expected to grow in other sectors such as smart home devices and automotive. UWB-enabled devices are forecast to reach 1.3 billion shipments in 2026, up from 143 million in 2020, according to the market research firm.

UWB technology has been around for several years but early on in 2000 there was a different flavor of the standard and also a different usage, when the industry was trying to use UWB for wireless USB, said Chen.

Flash forward to 20 years later and there are new UWB standard organizations leading the adoption drive for UWB. One is the FiRa Consortium started by companies like Apple, Bosch, Cisco, HID, NXP, Qualcomm, and Samsung to standardize how companies will implement UWB, mainly for smartphones and consumer electronics and the Car Connectivity Consortium that added UWB to the digital key spec.

“So now you have multiple organizations supporting UWB,” said Chen.

However, there are still roadblocks to adoption including the large size of the UWB antenna that makes it difficult to integrate in smaller devices, the higher costs of UWB components and infrastructure, and regional variations and restrictions compared to other short-range technologies, according to ABI Research.

MKSemi raises $12.8 million, unveils its first UWB SoC

MKSemi MK8000 SoC. Click for a larger image. (Source: Mauna Kea Semiconductors)

MKSemi appears to have resolved some of these issues with the development of its MK8000 UWB SoC. The company calls the MK8000 a breakthrough in power consumption and integration for high-precision sensing in IoT devices, enabling OEMs and ODMs to design, integrate, and deploy complete location and direction-finding solutions. Applications range from consumer to industrial IoT applications, including smart homes, smart cities, automotive, wearables, and health-monitoring devices.

With the high level of integration and computing power, customers can implement UWB ranging products with a handful of external products, enabling the smallest possible footprint and lowest power consumption, said MKSemi. The low-power UWB technology is said to extend battery life, enabling the smallest wireless devices to offer high-precision ranging and location capability.

MK8000 UWB SoC details

Offering a high level of integration, the MK8000 includes an integrated RX switch and matching network. It also includes a unique intelligent signal processor that reportedly improves computation efficiency by 10×, while significantly reducing power consumption. The integrated Arm Cortex M0 microcontroller (MCU) provides multiple RF channels (4 RX + 1 TX) for full ranging and AoA (3D) measurement. The device supports 110 Kbits/s, 850 Kbits/s, 6.8 Mbits/s, 27 Mbits/s, and 54 Mbits/s for high-speed data connection.

MKSemi raises $12.8 million, unveils its first UWB SoC

MK8000 block diagram. Click for a larger image.  (Source: Mauna Kea Semiconductors).

Claimed as the lowest power UWB SoC, the MK8000 consumes 43 mA @ 3 V/RX, which is said to be about 2× better than other devices in the market. In addition, it supports the widest frequency band from 3.1 GHz to 9 GHz for worldwide use, both enabling and future-proofing next-generation applications.

The MK8000 consumes about half the power of our competitors, rated at 75 mA @3 V/RX and 125 mA @1.8 V/RX , which is quite significant, said Chen.

The wide frequency range also is a significant feature of the MK8000. While competitors offer different parts for different bands, MKSemi has designed a single part to support different countries and regions and with a simple software configuration it allows OEMs to run a different band, he said.

“One of the key applications for UWB is high-precision location, so when you want to run 3D location, with x, y, and z coordinates, you need four antennas and the MK8000 is the only chip today that can run this natively without any additional components,” said Chen.  “On top of that we have the MCU integrated so we can run all of the algorithms locally without using external components.”

MKSemi raises $12.8 million, unveils its first UWB SoC

The MK8000 supports 3-9 GHz global UWB operation and offers integrated four RX channels with intrinsic 3D location capability. Click for a larger image. (Source: Mauna Kea Semiconductors).

Another key feature of the SoC is its high integration with all of the needed RF components to support the multiple antennas, enabling the connection to four antennas directly, eliminating the need for extra components and reducing costs, he added. “This also saves a lot of PCB space and makes the design much easier and with a shortage of semiconductors this is music to OEMs because they don’t have to  source as many components.”

“The SoC includes the UWB MAC/baseband and the full radio and software stack, and the integrated Arm Cortex M0 MCU, hence you can run applications in addition to UWB,” said Chen. “In addition, security is key to UWB, which is a reason the car guys decide to add UWB because the current technology using Bluetooth and sub-GHz radio are prone to hacking and UWB actually prevents it, he added.

The SoC also includes several parallel and serial interfaces, along with memory devices, a comparator, an ADC, a Voltage sensor, and temperature sensor.

In addition, MKSemi announced a partnership with Infineon and ThinkSeed Systems, an industrial and automotive system integrator, to enable secure ranging and location in IoT devices. Under the agreement, Infineon and MKSemi will jointly develop a system design, leveraging their respective BLE microcontroller and MK8000 SoC devices, and ThinkSeed Systems will add the application software and qualify it for industrial and automotive applications.

The reference design will address location-based use cases including asset tracking, passive keyless entry, warehouse management, and location tags. Currently, there are a lot of use cases that are being developed using UWB for the smart home environment in addition to industrial IoT such as asset tracking tags, Chen said.

He also noted a couple of uses cases that companies are discussing outside of the typical ranging location applications. These include using UWB to complement Bluetooth for higher data rate audio streaming and AR/VR applications. “Because of the metaverse, AR/VR device manufacturers are exploring this pretty aggressively, looking at how to use a very low-power UWB technology to cut cords from the head unit to the base unit.”

MKSemi announced its MK8000 SoC at CES 2022 virtually. It is now available in both LGA and CSP packages to partners and customers.