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Dublin: 5 °C Friday 19 December, 2014

How 20,000 pounds of potatoes brought wi-fi to airplanes

Spuds, glorious spuds, stood in for people in on-board tests.

Spuds on a plane: Some of the stand-in potatoes on a Boeing test
Spuds on a plane: Some of the stand-in potatoes on a Boeing test
Image: Boeing

IF YOU’RE FLYING somewhere this festive season, you could be on a plane that offers wi-fi.

And a good wi-fi connection on a plane flying 500 miles per hour at 35,000 feet was a particularly hard tech problem to solve, say the Boeing engineers who solved it.

Packing a lot of people in a small space can interfere with radio signals like wi-fi. That leads to hot and cold reception spots on the plane, which means some passengers get great connections and others don’t. It also has safety implications: You don’t want wi-fi signals to bounce around and mess up the plane’s instrumentation.

Engineers at Boeing thought up a way to fix the issue. But to test it they would need to fill a plane with people and make them sit there for days.

That’s where the potatoes came in. It turns out that a sack of potatoes acts a lot like a person, at least as far as wireless signals are concerned. Instead of hiring people, the engineers filled all the seats of an old plane with sacks of potatoes – some 20,000 pounds in all.

The potatoes were content to sit quietly. They didn’t need lunch breaks or bathroom breaks. UPDATED: They remained still on the plane for weeks of testing, a Boeing engineer tells us. That’s something that couldn’t be done with people. Because of the potatoes, the engineers are able to do subsequent tests on other airplanes in just 10 hours, not weeks.

So next time you’re watching Netflix on an airplane, thank a French fry.

- Julie Bort

Read: Protect your wi-fi network with… wallpaper?>

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