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In order to design a low-computational time of arrival (TOA) estimation algorithm for the ultra wideband (UWB) based wireless sensor networks, a two-step TOA estimation method which focuses on the direct path (DP) component based on energy detection is proposed in this paper. The first step is to determine which energy block the DP locates by generalized likelihood ratio test (GLRT). During the second step, the precise position of DP within the detected energy block is obtained by maximum likelihood (ML) estimation. A mathematical model is set up for this two-step method which is verified by the simulation results, and system parameters that affect the performance are studied by analytical and numerical methods. The results compared with traditional ranging algorithms also show that this method can achieve relative high performance under low complexity conditions.