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Boeing Wi-Fi flying high

Cutting edge equipment, analysis and tons of potatoes led Boeing engineers to passenger connectivity breakthrough.

When you fire up a smartphone or laptop on an airborne commercial flight, easy, continuous in-flight Internet access might be taken for granted. However the starting point of that connection isn't your seat. Long before you turned on your networked device while climbing to final cruising altitude, a technological advance in a Boeing test facility helped commercial airlines bolster the in-cabin signals intended for passenger connectivity. Now, airline passengers' personal electronics can more reliably connect to Wi-Fi.

Boeing test engineers created a new process for measuring signal quality, using proprietary measurement technology and analysis tools after realizing the technology's potential during small-scale calibration testing on lab tools. By adapting the lab approach to a large airplane, engineers could more efficiently measure signal strength and propagation, ensuring safe yet robust signal penetration throughout an airplane cabin.

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

"This is a perfect example of how our innovations in safety can make the entire flying experience better."

This 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.

A wireless signal inside an airplane can deviate randomly when people move around. Boeing’s new test process takes advantage of state-of-the-art technology and ground-breaking statistical analysis to identify strong and weak signal areas and balance them by adjusting the connectivity system accordingly. The result is increased safety and reliability.

Using their breakthrough approach, Boeing engineers applied the process to improving signal strength in passenger cabins. Using a de-commissioned airplane, the team from Boeing Test & Evaluation laboratories conducted a series of tests. The team determined that sacks of potatoes were ideal stand-ins for passengers, given their similar physical interactions with electronic signal properties. Much of the testing was conducted on the grounded airplane with the seats filled with 20,000 pounds of potatoes in sacks. The test data was then validated with human stand-in "passengers."

Once the new method was established, testing that previously took over two weeks to conduct was reduced to 10 hours. The new, efficient process promises to benefit Boeing Commercial Airplanes customers and the flying public.