Skip to main content

Boeing uses potatoes for in-flight wireless test

By Aaron Cooper, CNN
December 20, 2012 -- Updated 2331 GMT (0731 HKT)
  • 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.

Part of complete coverage on
CNN recommends
You don't have to be an adrenaline junkie to take a dare.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Fireworks are fantastic and human endeavor has its place, but sometimes Mother Nature outshines any performance we can produce.
February 22, 2014 -- Updated 1909 GMT (0309 HKT)
They're almost unbelievable. Impossible blues, electric greens, depths as clear as glass -- all bathed in blinding sunshine.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1521 GMT (2321 HKT)
Each day, CNN producers select a user-submitted photo to be our Travel Photo of the Day. Click through the gallery above to see stunning shots from around the world, and be sure to come back every day for a new image.
February 12, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Are abandoned buildings urban blight or historic relics? Photographers love them, in either case.
March 14, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The lush Emerald Isle is easy on the eyes.
January 17, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Earth never stops surprising us. Every corner of the planet offers some sort of natural peculiarity.
For 24 hours, we made the world's busiest airport our destination and found a world unto its own. Join us on our journey. What you see will surprise you.
August 13, 2013 -- Updated 1934 GMT (0334 HKT)
Beaches along the coasts of the United States call to shoreline explorers year-round.
July 28, 2012 -- Updated 0101 GMT (0901 HKT)
When five teenagers sat down and posed for a picture at Copco Lake in 1982, they didn't plan on making it a tradition. But that's what it became.