The geeky engineer in me causes an interest is some pretty oddball articles. A recent one in The Economist, one of my favorite magazines, detailed the efforts of Boeing in testing wireless electronics. You see, human beings are a problem. Yes, in general, but specifically as they apply to absorbing electronic wavelengths in the 2.4-5.0 GHz band used for WiFi. They are also not so great for the lower 700MHz to 3.5GHz band for cell phones. Normally, humans do not present a big problem because the naturally repel each other and are spread out so the signal can go around them. A key exception to this is when they are packed like sardines on an airplane. As more planes are equipped with WiFi, this has become a real performance problem.
Boeing engineers have been working to get around this problem. Until recently, the engineers used a combination of computer modeling and human testing, but this tended to be “expensive, time-consuming and imprecise”. An enterprising Boeing engineer came up with the approximation that humans are nothing but a big bag of salty water. These salts form ions which interfere with the electronic signals. Guess what else is about the same mix of water and salt – potatoes!
So the Synthethic Personnel Using Dielectric Substitution (SPUDS) project was born. They mimicked a plane load of passengers using sacks of potatoes totalling 20,000 lbs.! The sack were easier to manage that a bunch of Southwest cattle and much cheaper. The experiment allowed the engineers to idnetify hot spots and dead zones quickly and accurately. Just to be sure they did bring in a bunch of human test subjects to verify the test results.
And for those of you who have to know, the spuds were donated to a local food bank.