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Boeing uses potatoes for in-flight wireless test

By Aaron Cooper, CNN
updated 6:31 PM EST, Thu December 20, 2012
  • Boeing tests new methods to provide wireless signals to passengers
  • Instead of loading a plane with people for the tests, it piles in potatoes
  • The tubers mimic the way the human body responds to electronic signals

Washington (CNN) -- Airplane manufacturer Boeing builds some of the most complicated machines on Earth, but in its efforts to make wireless signals on airplanes better it turned to the produce aisle for help.

Wednesday the company announced a "breakthrough" in the procedures it uses to evaluate wireless signals in cabins, saying in a news release the tests make "it possible for passengers to enjoy more reliable connectivity when using networked personal electronic devices in the air."

The new procedures come, in part, thanks to 20,000 pounds of potatoes that were piled in the seats of a decommissioned plane used for the tests.

The tubers mimic the way the human body responds to electronic signals, so engineers at Boeing's Test & Evaluation Laboratory used the spud-filled plane to try out the new methods without requiring hundreds of people to sit in the aircraft.

Once the engineers had the methods down, they were able to replace the starchy veggies and validate the data with humans.

Boeing says the procedures it developed can reduce the time it takes to test wireless signals from two weeks to just 10 hours.

"One of the wonderful aspects of our improved testing is that we can describe both strong and weak signals with incredible accuracy," Boeing spokesman Adam Tischler said in a statement to CNN. "Engineers who are concerned primarily with operational safety of an airplane can see if the strong signals are safe for the airplane's communication and navigation systems. Meanwhile, an engineer who is concerned with getting every passenger a really good network signal can see if the weak signals are propagating through the airplane with enough power to provide a good usability experience."

Most Americans are familiar with wi-fi Internet connections provided on airplanes, but the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Aviation Administration have prohibited U.S. airlines from allowing cell phones in flight due to concerns about interference.

Some countries do allow cell phone use on board planes with specially designed cell phone receivers, devices which Boeing sells and installs.

"We can actually apply this kind of testing to just about any signal," spokesman Tischler said. "This is more than just wi-fi testing. We can test for safety and usability for all manner of personal electronic devices that might get used on an airplane."

As for the potatoes that were used in the tests, Boeing says they were donated to a food bank.

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