Boeing has found a very low-tech method for testing a high-tech service: it’s used 20,000 pounds of potatoes to test Wi-Fi signals on planes.
The bizarre sounding technique was necessary because the company wants to improve its Wi-Fi to make signal strength more consistent throughout a plane without it interfering with on-board electrical systems.
Boeing has recently developed its own tools for measuring and analyzing signal levels and then adjusting the Wi-Fi connections in real time. That’s helpful because having up to 300 humans who could all be moving from their seat at various times is enough to affect signal strength across the plane. The Boeing system is designed to redirect signals as people move around to maintain a consistent strength level, in particular to avoid localized spikes.
The new technology only required around 10 hours of testing time compared to about two weeks with previous Wi-Fi set-ups. However, getting 300 people to sit in a plane for 10 hours isn’t exactly a cheap or easy task, particularly given that by definition they couldn’t rely on amusing themselves with Wi-Fi based devices.
Enter a clever solution and a painful acronym: Project SPUDS, or Synthetic Personnel Using Dielectric Substitution. It turns out that the way a pile of sacks of potatoes affects Wi-Fi signals is close enough to the human effect for testing purposes. Potatoes don’t get bored, and they are happy to repeatedly move from seat to seat, albeit it with some assistance.