CHICAGO (AP) — 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 signal strength 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 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 wireless signals. 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 water content and chemistry — absorb and reflect radio wave signals much the same way as the human body does, making them suitable substitutes for airline passengers.
"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 vegetables and fruits were evaluated for their dielectric properties, or the way they transmit electric force without conduction.