Boeing engineers use spuds to improve in-air Wi-Fi

Dec 22, 2012 by Jason Keyser
This 2006 photo provided by Boeing Co. shows early dielectric substitution testing using potatoes in a Boeing Test & Evaluation laboratory in Arizona. Boeing has developed an advanced method to test wireless signals in airplane cabins, making it possible for passengers to enjoy more reliable connectivity when using networked personal electronic devices in the air. Employing an odd mix of the low-tech and the high-tech, Boeing loaded a plane with sacks of potatoes as part of testing it did to eliminate weak spots in in-flight wireless signals. Engineers determined radio waves bounce off the spuds much the same way they do with human bodies. Thus, the aircraft maker's researchers were able to spare people from having to sit motionless for many hours while data was collected. (AP Photo/Courtesy of Boeing Co.)

If the wireless Internet connection during your holiday flight seems more reliable than it used to, you could have the humble potato to thank.

While major airlines offer in-flight Wi-Fi on many flights, the can be spotty. Airlines and aircraft makers have been striving to improve this with the growing use of wireless devices and the number of people who don't want to be disconnected, even 35,000 feet (10,700 meters) up.

Engineers at Chicago-based Boeing Co. used sacks of potatoes as stand-ins for passengers as they worked to eliminate weak spots in in-flight . They needed full planes to get accurate results during signal testing, but they couldn't ask people to sit motionless for days while data was gathered.

"That's where potatoes come into the picture," Boeing spokesman Adam Tischler said.

It turns out that potatoes—because of their and chemistry—absorb and reflect radio wave signals much the same way as the human body does, making them suitable substitutes for .

"It's a testament to the ingenuity of these engineers. They didn't go in with potatoes as the plan," Tischler said.

Recapping the serendipitous path that led to better onboard wireless, Tischler said a member of the research team stumbled across an article in the Journal of Food Science describing research in which 15 were evaluated for their , or the way they transmit electric force without .

Its conclusions led the Boeing researchers to wonder if potatoes might serve just as well as humans during their own signal testing. Despite some skepticism, they ended up buying 20,000 pounds (9,000 kilograms) of them.

Video and photos of the work, which started in 2006, show a decommissioned airplane loaded with row upon row of potato sacks that look like large, lumpy passengers. The sacks sit eerily still in the seats as the engineers collect data on the strength of wireless signals in various spots.

The Boeing engineers added some complicated statistical analysis and the result was a proprietary system for fine tuning Internet signals so they would be strong and reliable wherever a laptop was used on a plane.

Boeing says the system also ensures Wi-Fi signals won't interfere with the plane's sensitive navigation and communications equipment.

"From a safety standpoint, you want to know what the peak signals are, what's the strongest signal one of our communications and navigation systems might see from a laptop or 150 laptops or 350 laptops," Boeing engineer Dennis Lewis explains in a video.

In a nod to the humor in using a tuber to solve a high-tech problem, researchers dubbed the project Synthetic Personnel Using Dialectic Substitution, or SPUDS.

The company says better Wi-Fi signals can be found already on three Boeing aircraft models flown by major airlines: 777, 747-8 and the 787 Dreamliner.

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User comments : 11

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Noodle_Naut
1.4 / 5 (7) Dec 22, 2012
Hey! I have seen that guy on the bus! That said, I may need some new glasses. ;)
RealScience
5 / 5 (8) Dec 22, 2012
Gives new meaning to the term "couch potato".
winthrom
1 / 5 (3) Dec 22, 2012
Let me see if I remember the drill here. I cannot use a cell phone on a commercial aircraft because the radio waves can mess up the flight instruments, but I can use WiFi because the radio waves do not mess up flight instruments.

I suspect that we should "Follow the money" guys and gals.

The different frequencies might be an excuse, but WiFi sits surrounded by cell phone frequencies. Might be stronger radiation from cell phones? Nope! How about the infamous multi-cell tower problem? Maybe. Does anyone have really good info on these matters?
Tausch
1 / 5 (4) Dec 23, 2012
Demand dictated Quantas Airways policy to drop or throttle wi fi usage.

Take no one's word except two words... (Quantas/WiFi.)(Google)
daqman
5 / 5 (1) Dec 23, 2012
What's taters precious?
You know, poe-tay-toe, boil 'em, mash 'em, sit 'em in a chair...
VendicarD
not rated yet Dec 23, 2012
This is my favorite spud experiment.

http://www.youtub...znW0nv2I
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Dec 26, 2012
I cannot use a cell phone on a commercial aircraft because the radio waves can mess up the flight instruments, but I can use WiFi because the radio waves do not mess up flight instruments.

Electromagnetic waves come in many different frequencies. From gammas to light to infrared to radiowaves. In order to make sure that that radiation doesn't mess up your electronics you have to make sure that no bit of metal in it is a multiple the length of a received EM wave (I think even half the wavelength is enough - but I'd have to look that one up).

In-flight WIFI is on a very specific frequency KNOWN TO THE MANUFACTURER OF THE PLANE. So they can design and check their airplane for safety to that frequency.
Any old cell phone by a traveller may be on any frequency (many different standards exist) and therefore it poses an unknown/uncheckable risk.

See the difference?
winthrom
not rated yet Dec 27, 2012
@antialias_physorg: I understand the full and half wave matter, and recognize the concerns of RF interference. I recently worked for 3 yrs as a test engineer on a software defined radio for the US Gov't. I am certain the all instruments and associated antennas in a commercial aircraft are well shielded from stray RF in aircraft both old and new. As far as I know, antennas are located on the skin of the aircraft and connected by shielded cables to the radios (even my Piper is built this way) and cut to 1/2 or 1/4 the range of wavelength(s) desired. No other part of the airframe is involved. The manufacturer of the plane does not (can not) assure all RF issues are designed into the aircraft. Most modern aircraft (1960 - 2000) have avionics that are newer than the plane both by frequencies used and date of manufacture (e.g., ADS-B, GPS, etc.). I find conflicting results of testing cell phones in commercial aircraft. Nothing definitive. Do you know of any such information?
winthrom
not rated yet Dec 27, 2012
@antialias_physorg: I understand the full and half wave matter, and recognize the concerns of RF interference. I recently worked for 3 yrs as a test engineer on a software defined radio for US Gov't military aircraft. I am certain the all instruments and associated antennas in a mil/cmrl aircraft are well shielded from stray RF in aircraft both old and new. As far as I know, antennas are located on the skin of the aircraft and connected by shielded cables to the radios (even my Piper is built this way) and cut to 1/2 or 1/4 the range of wavelength(s) desired. No other part of the airframe is involved. The manufacturer of the plane does not (can not) assure all RF issues are designed into the aircraft. Most modern aircraft (1960 - 2000) have avionics that are newer than the plane both by frequencies used and date of manufacture (e.g., ADS-B, GPS, etc.). I find conflicting results of testing cell phones in commercial aircraft. Nothing definitive. Do you know of any such information?
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Dec 27, 2012
I am certain the all instruments and associated antennas in a commercial aircraft are well shielded from stray RF

If you worked inteh field then you know that any type of electronics can be an antenna (even connections on printed ciruit board - that is why HF circuit boards have no edges but rounded paths instead of the rectangular ones common in low frequency/analog boards)

Commercial airplanes have a lot of electronics - and shielding that is heavy (i.e. costly)

That said: what would you use your cell phone for, anyhow? On an airplane it's not in range of a receiving station in any case.
winthrom
not rated yet Dec 28, 2012
"Range": The folks on Flt 93 in Pennsylvania (9/11) used cell phones.

"Use": I would use to get Wx in my piper. Otherwise there really isn't much use for it.

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