Boeing Uses Potatoes to Improve WiFi Connectivity

The airplane manufacturer used 20,000 potato sacks to help conduct tests on wireless signal strength in its aircraft.

Airplane manufacturer Boeing has taken some interesting steps in its efforts to test improvements on wireless signals in airplane cabins, making it possible for passengers to enjoy more reliable connectivity when using networked personal electronic devices in the air.

It turns out much of the testing was conducted on the grounded airplane with the seats filled with 20,000 pounds of potato sacks (to simulate the bulk of human beings) through which wireless signals must pass. In addition to the potato sacks, Boeing engineers created a new process for measuring radio signal quality using proprietary measurement technology and analysis tools, which enables engineers to more efficiently measure how strong a signal is and how far it spreads.

Because a wireless signal inside an airplane can deviate randomly when people move around, the tests were conducted to identify strong and weak signal areas and balance them by adjusting the connectivity system accordingly. The test data was then validated on the ground with human stand-ins for passengers. The end result is increased safety and reliability, a company release explained.

The new testing methodology helped reduce the time it took to complete the trials to 10 hours from more than two weeks. The tests are designed to ensure safe yet powerful signal penetration throughout an airplane cabin. Boeing noted the technology was first developed to more thoroughly and efficiently ensure that signal propagation met the regulatory safety standards that protect against interference with an aircraft's critical electrical systems

"Every day we work to ensure that Boeing passengers are traveling on the safest and most advanced airplanes in the world," Dennis O'Donoghue, Boeing test and evaluation vice president, said in a statement. "This is a perfect example of how our innovations in safety can make the entire flying experience better."

As more airline passengers demand in-flight Internet connectivity and low-cost carriers prepare to roll out free Web service to customers, Boeing announced the September launch of a major initiative in which systems will be installed during production on the 747-8 and 777 by the end of 2013.

In addition, the company said it plans to introduce wireless media streaming on all new Boeing airplanes in 2014. The 737 airplane, which already includes wiring provisions for connectivity systems, is currently being evaluated for additional connectivity that could be available in the near future. Boeing is also working to provide a full set of connectivity offerings, including use of personal cell phones and WiFi connectivity for passengers, on its 787 aircraft as part of its standard catalog by the end of this year.

Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski recently sent a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration requesting more relaxed restrictions on the use of electronic devices, such as tablets, e-readers and other portable devices, during takeoff and landing.

The FCC's current rules prohibit the use of cellular phones using the 800MHz frequency and other wireless devices on airborne aircraft. The ban was put in place because of potential interference to wireless networks on the ground, according to the organization's Website. In addition to the FCC's rules, the FAA prohibits in-flight use of wireless devices because of potential interference to the aircraft's navigation and communication systems.