Boeing Tests Wi-Fi with Potato Stand-Ins

Q: Why do potatoes make good detectives? A: Because they keep their eyes peeled.

Q: What do you call a stolen yam? A: A hot potato.

Q. Why did Boeing fill an aircraft with 20,000 pounds of potatoes? A. Because potatoes are a lot like us.

A new potato-testing method is improving Wi-Fi in the air. We’ve had lots of discussion at FT about inflight Wi-Fi being slow. Maybe we’ve gotten through to Boeing because they’re on the caper, tweaking systems and mashing data. (OK, no more potato jokes.) Or maybe Boeing engineers are a few fries short of a Happy Meal. (No more jokes!)

According to a Boeing press release, the Seattle-based aircraft manufacturer’s Test and Evaluation laboratories “determined that sacks of potatoes were ideal stand-ins for passengers, given their similar physical interactions with electronic signal properties.” Wow, potatoes bounce and absorb radio wave signals just like us. So they filled the seats of a decommissioned plane with 20,000 pounds of potatoes. Really! Boeing says that potatoes shortened the testing time from weeks to hours.

The project was named SPUDS. (That’s not a joke – it stands for Synthetic Personnel using Dielectric Substitution.)

According to Boeing, “a wireless signal inside an airplane can deviate randomly when people move around.” It’s an ever-changing environment up there when that guy in the middle seat wants out and the trolley runs over your foot. But that’s not the only issue. They also need to “ensure that signal propagation [meets] the regulatory safety standards that protect against interference with an aircraft’s critical electrical systems.”

With seats stuffed with potatoes, Boeing engineers analyze the strength of Wi-Fi signals throughout the cabin and determine if the signals affect the safety of the aircraft’s avionics.

The day will come when nobody gets angry about weak Wi-Fi at 35,000 feet. (Q: What do you say to an angry baked potato? A: Anything, just butter him up.)

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