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Foodtubes Proposes Underground, Physical Internet 431

geek4 writes "Automatically routed canisters could replace trucks with an Internet of things, says Foodtubes. A group of academics is proposing a system of underground tunnels which could deliver food and other goods in all weathers with massive energy savings. The Foodtubes group wants to put goods in metal capsules two meters long, which are shifted through underground polyethylene tubes at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour, directed by linear induction motors and routed by intelligent software to their destinations. The group, which includes an Oxford physics professor and logistics experts, wants £15 million to build a five-mile test circuit, and believes the scheme could fund itself if used by large supermarkets and local councils, and could expand because it uses an open architecture."
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Foodtubes Proposes Underground, Physical Internet

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  • by DeBaas ( 470886 ) on Friday December 03, 2010 @12:29PM (#34432072) Homepage

    Ok, I'll be the man in the middle

  • by paiute ( 550198 ) on Friday December 03, 2010 @12:31PM (#34432140)

    DDOS = distributed denial of snacks

  • by mlts ( 1038732 ) * on Friday December 03, 2010 @12:32PM (#34432154)

    1: Getting right of way to drill the holes needed for that stuff.
    2: Maintaining it. It sounds like if the induction motors break down, fixing those would be a PITA.
    3: Unsticking the cargo if it gets jammed somewhere.
    4: How many of these can travel through the tube network at a time? If the induction motors can't handle that many, it might not be as efficient as the company touts.
    5: Security of cargo. I'm sure there will be people who would love to divert things to their end.
    6: Transients climbing in the tubes, and cleaning the messes up if they get struck. If a bum dies in the tunnel, does the company get sued for wrongful death?
    7: Plans for power outages.

    There are a number of basic logistical concerns. It would be nice to have a freight tunnel system, but it is fraught with a number of issues.

    • by samkass ( 174571 )

      Besides, the software would be prohibitively expensive. See the Denver International Airport's automated bag handling system [], which has long-since been abandoned.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Bobakitoo ( 1814374 )
      All these consern apply for surface road, bridge and tunel. I am sure these were evocated when the automobile became widely used.

      In fact, forget the underground tube. Just lay them on the street. And make them larger so they can carry 2 to 4 person. These are the self driving car we been waiting for. Safer then flying cars. No more trafic jam. No more road deicing and thier awful effect on the environement. Tubes are the road of the future.
    • by dkleinsc ( 563838 ) on Friday December 03, 2010 @12:48PM (#34432470) Homepage

      There are other reliability issues too:
      1. Every network system I'm aware of relies on being able to duplicate packets at virtually no cost. Obviously, a physical packet can't be duplicated like that.
      2. Dropped packets in an electronic system aren't a problem. In a physical system, it leaves a pile of crap.

    • by MozeeToby ( 1163751 ) on Friday December 03, 2010 @12:50PM (#34432494)

      There are similar issues with relying on Semis to ship goods

      1: Getting right of way to expand or build new roads
      2: Wear and tear on publicly owned roads
      3: Traffic accidents killing innocent bystanders
      4: Massive inefficiencies at every level, even in the best conditions
      5: Security of cargo is still an issue
      6: Plans for storms, road outages, construction
      7: Cost of an estimated 10 million semi drivers in the US alone

      Basically, there are logistical issues that are similarly difficult to overcome with one of the systems that is currently commonly used.

      • by lgw ( 121541 )

        Cargo shipped by train is already quite efficient, and the infrastructure is already in place. It's surprising how often people try to re-invent trains.

        • The problem with trains is that they're good for shipping huge quantities of goods to points along a line, and are much more efficient the farther between stops they go. Because of this, they're good for shipping between far-apart cities.

          However, they're not as efficient as boats, so it's actually more efficient to ship goods by boat from California to New York (through the Panama Canal) than across the continent by train.

          The other problem trains have is getting the goods from the terminal to where they're

    • 1. Use the "drill baby drill" process (hire the oil companies, they are good at getting these rights.)
      2. Induction... psshhhhh. that's no problem, we're going to keep a vacuum cleaner nearby to pull them out all pneumatic tube 1800s style.
      3. see 2
      4. as many as you can fit end to end. If you need to squeeze in more you can try compression, but tar might make the food taste funny
      5. This is simple to solve by using "quantum" type security. Don't try to prevent theft, just make sure you know when it happens
    • by gfreeman ( 456642 ) on Friday December 03, 2010 @12:53PM (#34432568)

      1: Getting right of way to drill the holes needed for that stuff.

      Similar to problems laying fiber right now. Next time a road is dug up to repair something, stick in a foodtube as well. Eventually a network will start to take shape - it may take a couple of decades, but at minimal disruption and cost.

      2: Maintaining it. It sounds like if the induction motors break down, fixing those would be a PITA.

      Have service cannisters using onboard power that can push the broken cannister to the next service chute.

      3: Unsticking the cargo if it gets jammed somewhere.

      See above.

      4: How many of these can travel through the tube network at a time? If the induction motors can't handle that many, it might not be as efficient as the company touts.

      Depends on the length of each link, and how far apart the service depots are.

      5: Security of cargo. I'm sure there will be people who would love to divert things to their end.

      That's something that already happens in real life with trucks, and especially the internet. It's an inherent problem whichever way you choose to distribute things.

      6: Transients climbing in the tubes, and cleaning the messes up if they get struck. If a bum dies in the tunnel, does the company get sued for wrongful death?

      I'd have thought the tubes would be sealed, the only entrance/exits being at the service depots. If a bum breaks into a power station and gets electrocuted, does the power company get sued?

      7: Plans for power outages.

      IP networks are subject to those too. Some small UPS at each depot to ensure that cannisters get to a depot in the event of a power outage, rather than get stuck in tunnels.

      • Depo? I was thinking more storage tunnel. A dead-end extension which exists to get rid of packages that can't be delivered because, eg, their recieving end malfunctioned mid-journey, or to clear the tubes for an emergency priority package (Possibly 'the hospital needs a new bag of rare blood / antivenom' or, more cynically, 'Were out of bagles here, losing $180 an hour in sales!'). They can be resent once the repairs are made or tubes cleared, or manually reassigned to an alternate destination.
    • I'd like to point out that these are all either problems faced with city water systems, the internet, or traditional shipping. People tend to be pretty miffed if a water line bursts, their ISP loses power, or a UPS truck is totaled with their fragile package on board. The reality is people tend to survive these sorts of failures becomes it's not actually deadly to go without water for 2 hours. Your grocery parcel can probably wait a day without you starving.
    • 8. Cities like New Orleans, Houston, most of Florida, and keeping the underground tubes free of water.
    • 1. We can do it for sewer/subways, so we can do it for this.
      2. ...and trucks, roads etc don't neet maintence?
      3. ...unsticking trucks when they get stuck on bridges / ontop of passanger cars.
      4. ...have you ever been on the M25 (or insert-name-of-big-highway) on a Friday afternoon?
      5. think it'll be worse than shoplifting / 'falling off the back of a lorry'?
      6. ...and this is worse than road deaths / train deaths right now?
      7. Fuel strikes?

      Sure, you've raised some valid points, but you've completely omitt

    • by imakemusic ( 1164993 ) on Friday December 03, 2010 @01:15PM (#34432964)

      8. Spam. Cans and cans of the stuff. Flowing into your house.

  • Expect resistance (Score:4, Insightful)

    by boristdog ( 133725 ) on Friday December 03, 2010 @12:32PM (#34432156)

    Short haul truckers will resist this, but I doubt they have a good lobby...yet.

    USPS, UPS and FedEx will like this IF they are involved. Otherwise they will fight it tooth and nail.

    • by robot256 ( 1635039 ) on Friday December 03, 2010 @12:35PM (#34432220)

      Short haul truckers will resist this, but I doubt they have a good lobby...yet.

      USPS, UPS and FedEx will like this IF they are involved. Otherwise they will fight it tooth and nail.

      Very good point. If you can throw in a bone to get them behind it, then you have billions of dollars in capital backing you up. Otherwise, those billions will fight you to the bitter end.

    • by mlts ( 1038732 ) *

      In the US, this might be useful, but if the tubes get saturated, I'm sure short haul trucking may not be dented. Especially of the cost of getting tube access from a warehouse to a store is high.

      USPS, et. al. won't be affected, unless we can get Heinlein-style intercontinental ballistic tubes going. They likely wouldn't be affected much due to their business being regional, or national for the most part.

  • by netsavior ( 627338 ) on Friday December 03, 2010 @12:33PM (#34432168)
    It's too bad we already built cities and housing for 6.7 billion people. Maybe next time we could re-start with this in mind.
    • by epiphani ( 254981 ) <epiphani@ d a l . net> on Friday December 03, 2010 @12:41PM (#34432340)

      I agree. Let's never do anything that's a good idea if it somehow impacts existing infrastructure.

    • by RobVB ( 1566105 ) on Friday December 03, 2010 @12:53PM (#34432558)

      Tunneling really isn't that hard in most places. All you need is a deep hole on each side to assemble tunnel boring machines. You might run into problems with pipelines, wires and other tunnels, but you can always go deeper.

      • When we built the house where I spent my teenage years, I was amazed at how easy it was. We had to connect water, telephone, and electricity from the other side of a field. It took a morning to dig the tunnel that went under the field, under the road, and came up exactly where it was expected, with no above-ground disruption anywhere other than the two ends. They just put a thing they called a mole (basically, a small tunnelling machine) into the ground, and it pulled a conduit along behind it. At the e
        • AFAIK they pretty much laser-guide them now. However as the tunnel gets larger and/or longer the complexity increases, so your under-the-road tunnel is pretty trivial compared to what is being discussed here.

  • I like the idea, but I think that the biggest problems they might encounter on a larger scale is the need to obtain easements as the pipes will inevitably run onto private property at some point.

  • Or... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by wjousts ( 1529427 ) on Friday December 03, 2010 @12:34PM (#34432202)
    You could have an above ground solution which would be much easier to maintain. You could call them "TRAINS".
    • Great minds!
    • I used to work for a robotics company. Some of the engineers felt that trains would make an excellent target for automation. Obstacle detection and avoidance is simple (only need to worry about things near the tracks and our only response is to slow down/stop). Smarter trains enable smarter trainyards and thence, more efficient shipping.
    • Re:Or... (Score:4, Insightful)

      by i kan reed ( 749298 ) on Friday December 03, 2010 @01:10PM (#34432870) Homepage Journal
      That's not the same. Trains aren't routed. They do extremely well with long distance deliver effectiveness. They do extremely poorly with short distance efficiency. Two completely different problems. Trains solve weight*distance/energy. This purports to solve #ofdestinations/energy.
    • Unless you want a train station leading into every supermarket, retail park, and food court, then no. This system is designed for the last mile to the point of consumption, and likely a hell of a lot of the stuff that would use these tubes would've already traveled on trains at some point.
  • by snookerhog ( 1835110 ) on Friday December 03, 2010 @12:35PM (#34432212)
    Mad magazine already showed how all Chinese take out restaurants in North America are already supplied in this manner.

    This was in an issue from about 20 years ago. Kudos to anyone who can find a copy of this spread.

  • by digitaldc ( 879047 ) * on Friday December 03, 2010 @12:35PM (#34432214)
    So what happens when the canned Spam going 60mph gets accidentally jammed between the ham and lamb? Would we have something to ram the spam through this ham & lamb dam?

    I think we already had an energy-saving networked system like this that produced way less carbon than Diesel trucks, they were called TRAINS.
  • I'm not saying this new system will be bad, but ask anyone who worked maintenance at the Johnson Space Center building 30 what happened when people sent Cokes through the P-Tube system. You piss off a bunch of techs! (seriously though, I love the idea of a freight tunnel system, it's something I've been designing in my head for a long time - on multiple scales)

  • I know I've proposed something similiar, though I certainly didn't get as specific. 2 meters sounds a bit long for 'tubes', but I suppose if the tunnels are a meter in diameter they'd be about proportional to the old pneumatic systems.

    Of course, I also proposed to dual-purpose PRT systems for this - the idea being that package delivery companies could design vehicles to make deliveries, saving the expense of a driver, oversized vehicles, even the need for as many transfer stations. Instead you have smalle

  • Sounds like it's going to have absurdly high up-front costs. Digging tunnels is expensive, and these guys want to run hundreds of miles of them? Who's going to put up the trillion or so dollars you would need to get the system up to a useful size? How long will it take for the energy savings to overcome the startup costs? Especially if you compare it to simple trains or trucks?
    • Digging tunnels is expensive

      Digging tunnels large enough for cars and trucks and safe enough to carry people is expensive.
  • by WillAdams ( 45638 ) on Friday December 03, 2010 @12:47PM (#34432438) Homepage

    built underground and intended to be used similarly to this []

    and London had a narrow gauge railway for a moving mail between sorting stations: []


  • by Lilith's Heart-shape ( 1224784 ) on Friday December 03, 2010 @12:48PM (#34432462) Homepage
    If this new transport system works for goods, why not use it for people as well as long as you can provide adequate ventilation and reasonable comfort?
  • Why are the calling them food tubes? We already have Pneumatic tubes []. This just a scaled up version. I had a similar idea once for big cities. It might make a lot of sense, especially if it's general purpose, like for the post office.

    But "food tubes"... really?!!? That just sounds gross. You brits are weird. How about the "megmatic tube system" that happens to also ship food?

  • by Dancindan84 ( 1056246 ) on Friday December 03, 2010 @12:50PM (#34432488)

    So we can push button, receive bacon?

  • by RobVB ( 1566105 ) on Friday December 03, 2010 @12:50PM (#34432490)

    In the '90s, a feasibility study was done in the Netherlands for an Underground Logistics System. It involved little carts that could drive themselves, and carry a variety of cargo pallets. The idea was to connect Amsterdam's Schiphol airport to a nearby train station and a flower market. They never built it because the financial risks were too big.

    More recently, a Belgian engineering firm proposed an Underground Container Mover for the port of Antwerp, which is basically a large underground conveyor belt for containers. It would run in a circle connecting container terminals with other terminals and highways on the other side of the river. This could remove a lot of trucks from the busy highways, especially the tunnels.

    The basic idea is that as ground is becoming more and more rare, we shouldn't waste it on cargo transport. Moving most of it underground makes a lot of sense. And we've actually managed to move a lot of it (up to 90% in some areas) underground already, in terms of tonne-miles of goods transported. Just think of drinkable water, gas and sewage, but also oil and a lot of chemicals in industrial zones. Pipelines are transporting more than most people can imagine, and they're great. Trying to move boxed goods in a similar fashion is the logical next step, there are just a few problems we haven't figured out yet.

  • It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that if this were really implemented in a major way, it would create the ideal system for a terrorist group to discretely deliver several hundred bombs simultaneously all cross a major city.

  • by MobyDisk ( 75490 ) on Friday December 03, 2010 @12:55PM (#34432610) Homepage

    Step 1) Why only 60mph? Once you have evacuated the air in the tubes I don't see why there would be a speed limit, how about 600mph? Or 6000 mph?

    Step 2) Now use it for general cargo.

    Step 3) Now put humans in it. I can't help but think they are already thinking of this because a 2m (6 ft 6 inches) capsule is enough to fit most people. Unfortunately, squishy humans are limited to a around 1G of acceleration, but I love the idea of a 15 minute trip from New York to Washington DC.

  • by zmollusc ( 763634 ) on Friday December 03, 2010 @01:01PM (#34432724)

    Why build all that infrastructure? Surely there have been enough developments in accuracy to deliver things ballistically? Caveat: It might suit some goods more than others.

Q: How many IBM CPU's does it take to execute a job? A: Four; three to hold it down, and one to rip its head off.