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I wish I had known couch potatoes were being replaced by actual potatoes, because I would have taken the job! Just kidding…

During our recent flight to and from Myrtle Beach, I heard a lot of passengers muttering under their breath when the announcement came on to turn off their electronic devices, including cell phones. Turn Off – not just “put to sleep”! The reason: the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) and the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) prohibit airlines from allowing cell phone usage during flight. They are concerned about the operational safety of the airplane, in particular, personal devices interfering with the communication and navigation systems. Airline passengers are also expecting higher levels of cabin wi-fi connectivity for their personal devices during flight. So airlines are investigating antenna positioning and the dynamics in the cabin in order to a) offer a strong wireless network signal without interference; and, b) ensure maximum signal strength regardless of where passengers are seated.

So how does this relate to potatoes (or couch potatoes)? Keep reading –

Almost any material in the airline cabin, whether moving or stationary, can affect wi-fi signals by absorbing or reflecting the energy, and ‘stirring’ the RF (radio frequency) signals. Boeing examined its methods for testing RF signal strength in the cabins and found it a lengthy and costly process (i.e., a large number of measurements taken by two shifts of technicians, engineers, flight operations, and ground crew…over a week). But their newest technique has reduced the time to 10 hours and a relatively small number of measurements. A great deal of lab time was spent developing the technique, but…here’s the fun part…a “good deal of time was spent looking at potatoes”. Based on an article called Dielectric Properties of Vegetables and Fruits as a Function of Temperature, Ash, and Moisture Content (by O. Sipahioglu and S.A. Barringer in the Journal of Food Science, Vol. 68, No.1, 2003) demonstrated that people and potatoes have “similar relative permittivity” (i.e., the ability of a substance to store electrical energy in an electric field). So while people and potatoes are different chemically, we are similar in the way we interact with wi-fi signals.  How? At certain frequencies, both absorb RF energy in a similar way. Therefore, 20,000 lbs of sacks of potatoes were placed in the seats inside the test cabin as passenger substitutes. Apparently, they performed admirably before being donated to a food bank. The spuds didn’t get bored, whereas people (even couch potatoes) would have had to sit motionless for 10 hours, while the data was gathered.

On an unrelated note, the UK Potato Council said many people underestimated potatoes” alternative uses. For example, potato starch is used in clothing to strengthen fibres or glucose can be extracted from potato starch as a sweetener. Potatoes have calming, decongestant and astringent properties, and raw potatoes can calm tired eyes. And let’s not forget potato converted to alcohol or electricity. Power to the Potatoes!

For more reading / references:

Boeing Chips Away at Cabin RF Test Time

Boeing uses potatoes instead of people to test wi-fi

Boeing uses potatoes for in-flight wireless test

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