There doesn't seem to be anything you can’t do with potatoes. You can boil them, mash them, fry them, roast them and even make pens out of them. Boeing is taking this versatility a step further by using them to replace people. No, this isn't a strange genetic experiment. The plane maker’s engineers at the Boeing Test & Evaluation laboratories have discovered that sacks of potatoes work as a substitute for people, when testing the effect on WiFi of an airline cabin packed with passengers.

The program is called Synthetic Personnel Using Dielectric Substitution (SPUDS) and its purpose is to develop the most evenly spread and reliable WiFi coverage for an airliner.

Putting a WiFi network on an airliner isn't a matter of just plugging in a couple of routers. The cabin is a metal tube packed with wires and electronics that can interfere with WiFi signals, or the reverse. Worse, the human body can randomly distort signals. This distortion doesn't matter much for WiFi systems on the ground, but in a passenger cabin where hundreds of people are crammed together and moving around, it adds up to a major problem.

A graphic image showing WiFi hot spots on an airliner

The usual method of testing WiFi on a plane involves using human beings. That means asking a couple of hundred people to sit still inside a decommissioned airliner for two weeks. This is boring, expensive and makes an economy flight from New York to Hong Kong seem like paradise.

Boeing engineers discovered that potatoes have the same dielectric properties as people, so in developing the company’s new WiFi system they used 20,000 pounds (9,072 kg) of potato sacks piled in the seats. Not only did this save a lot of cramped legs, but the tests could be done in only ten hours.

The purpose of all this is to test how evenly a WiFi signal spreads in the cabin and how strong it is at any particular spot under various conditions using “proprietary measurement technology and analysis tools.” After the potatoes are tested, humans replace them for the much briefer final test, since people moving or switching on hundreds of mobile devices can also cause changes in signal strength that need to be accounted for.

Images released by Boeing shows that red potatoes were used. The company did not say whether russets or Yukon Golds produced different results.

Source: Boeing