Wi-Fi 802.11bf: the new standard can detect motion and measure distances based on the signal

Work is already underway on the Wi-Fi standard that will arrive in 2024. Specifically in September three years from now, when the IEEE plans to approve the new Wi-Fi 802.11bf. This is an update that will expand the possibilities of Wi-Fi, allowing not only to transmit the signal but also to use it to detect which people or objects are moving within its range.

Wi-Fi 802.11bf cannot be understood without the associated ‘Wi-Fi Sensing’ (SENS) technology. The first term is for the standard, whose main novelty is the introduction of this capability to turn Wi-Fi devices into a kind of distance and motion sensor.

What is Wi-Fi Sensing?


Using the differences in WiFi signal interference, SENS is a technology that can measure the range, speed, direction, movement, presence, and proximity of people and objects. WiFi devices emit waves throughout the house to send and receive data, but these waves can also be used to identify some parameters of the objects with which these waves interact.

Through The Register, we learn about the work of Francesco Restuccia, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern University, who explains in an arXiV paper what role the new standard can play: “when 802.11bf is finalized and introduced as an IEEE standard in September 2024, WiFi will cease to be a communication standard only and will legitimately become a full sensing paradigm”.

WLAN Sensing

The next expected standard is Wi-Fi 7, based on the IEEE 802.11be ‘Extremely High Throughput’ (EHT) standard and promising at least 30 Gbps at the access point and up to 48 Gbps. Its arrival is also expected in 2024. This Wi-Fi 802.11bf can be understood as a parallel standard, for those future Wi-Fi devices that also activate SENS motion detection.

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As described by the IEEE itself, the measurements obtained with the WLAN network will enable a whole range of new applications, both at the level of home security, entertainment, and energy management and savings. It is not difficult to imagine, for example, that smart lights connected to home WiFi could automatically switch off when they detect that no one is at home or activate an alarm system when they detect movement in the house even when we are away.

Wifi Sensing

Intel is one of the companies that has described the possibilities of ‘Wi-Fi Sensing’, explaining that it is based on analyzing channel changes measured by amplitude and phase. This technology can be applied to different frequencies, from 2.4 GHz to 60 GHz, passing through 5 and 6 GHz.

The bands targeted by IEEE are slightly different, explaining that ‘Wi-Fi SENS’ will be between 1 GHz and 7.125 GHz (MAC/PHY interface) and above 45 GHz, which would fit with the 60 GHz named by Intel.

The 802.11bf standard will enable remote monitoring via Wi-Fi devices without the need for dedicated sensors or cameras. On the assumptions of Wi-Fi 802.11bf at 60 GHz, the IEEE envisions that it could be leveraged for gesture recognition in gaming applications, services, enhanced remote health monitoring, and more.

Privacy concerns

“It has been shown that SENS-based classifiers can infer privacy-critical information such as keyboard typing, gesture recognition, and activity tracking,” the researchers explain. “Given the broadcast nature of the wireless channel, a malicious intruder could easily ‘listen’ to CSI [Channel State Information] reports and track user activity without authorization.”

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Restuccia suggests that the new standard should have an optionality system so that it is up to the user to voluntarily choose to enable it. However, this ‘Wi-Fi SENS’ has an added complexity compared to other sensors or surveillance cameras. And is that WiFi waves can penetrate the walls, so it could be used to invade the privacy of others without them detecting it. A complexity that we already see in other technologies such as Bluetooth.

We will have to wait until 2024 to know the final details of a new WiFi standard that promises to simplify configuration and automation in our home, but almost every time a new technology appears, it will also generate new debates and challenges.

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