US planemaker Boeing used an unusual substitute for passengers to test its in-flight wi-fi system - potatoes. Passenger seats on a decommissioned plane were loaded with huge sacks of the tubers for several days as signal strengths were checked. The company's researchers say that potatoes "interact" with electronic signals in a similar way to humans.
The technique also took advantage of the fact that spuds - unlike humans - never get bored. Boeing's engineers did a number of tests to ensure that passengers would get the strongest possible wi-fi signal while in the air, all while meeting safety standards that protect against interference with an aircraft's electrical systems. Wireless signals fluctuate randomly in the enclosed space of an aeroplane cabin as people move about.
This means that signal distribution is uneven throughout the cabin, with weaker and stronger connectivity in different seats. "You want your laptop to work anywhere it's located on your seat, [but] there can be significant signal changes just due to the location of the laptop," said Boeing engineer Dennis Lewis. To test the signal distribution, the firm turned to spuds instead of human test subjects, filling the seats with 20,000lbs (9,000kg) of potatoes in sacks.
According to Boeing, potatoes' "interactions" with electronic signals mimic those of a human body, making them "the perfect stand-in for people who would otherwise have had to sit motionless for days while the data was gathered". Frederic Rosseneu of the European Potato Trade Association Europatat said the organisation was "looking forward to other experiments in which spuds can help to make our lives more convenient".