Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Physical Interweb Pipes for Produce; "FoodTubes"

* From this article on ilookforwardto.com.

Initially this reminded me of a system I envisioned a few years ago. That was more for of a local loop thing: store to household delivery of groceries, post & small parcels or restaurant food. Self powered bogies, the size of supermarket home delivery crates/boxes, that run through rectangular cross-sectioned conduits under roads/pavements, finding their destination by being forwarded like packets of data on the internet.

[ XKCD - http://xkcd.com/827/ ]
I thought my idea would be unlikely to make wide scale implementation, given the massive investment required merely for wiring up households with new data/communications lines. It seems more likely that automated intelligence will solve the problem by utilising existing infrastructure: an extension of driverless cars. Either the recipient of a delivery walks out to collect the package from said robot car (that would not complain about unsociable hours) or, some years later, properly smart humanoid delivery bots could be deployed from the cars for the last 10 meters.

* However, this FoodTubes concept has more fundamental benefits:
+ Energy efficiency - "1/5th of current freight prices" when HGVs/vans/trains use 92% of their energy to move purely the vehicle.
  - These are based on current scenariors, which is fine for now, and as long as the scheme can recoupe it's cos before the advent of 100% electric lorries, charged of solar PV, AI drivers.

+ Food security (independent of roads and severe congestion or temporary fuel shortages).
     - Though (with a single main loop) I would worry about it's reliability (resistance to natural structure failures, capsule collisions, or even sabotage) and repairability (possible methods to clear out or even replace tunnels that where bored underground.

+ Boon for car drivers; fewer HGVs means:
     - Less getting stuck behind slow or overtaking lorries.
     - Significantly less wear on the roads.
[ Top - Capsule (2m long, 1m diameter). Bellow - conduit construction illustration. ]
* Will it happen?
The FoodTubes website looks very 90s at the moment, and designs are all vague concepts, so a 10 year minimum time-frame might be par. It's basically a set of case study documents that did well in this "St Andrews Prize" competition (ideas for reducing environmental impact or something). Although, there are some pretty high brow members of the team (professors, industry experts, prominent layers). Not sure what type of company would be able to spawn a division capable of this flavour of (inter)national scale undertaking...

As an 'internet for goods' there needs to be common standards, like the shipping container system currently used worldwide on ocean vessels and lorries. Island UK could get away with a bespoke system, but Europe would require more consensus, for example. Having cylindrical capsules rules out direct compatibility with containers, and possibly even pallets, so massive repacking operations will be necessary at ports or other distribution centres.

With China looking set to use our currency from their trade surplus to finance rail links to us, this kind of scheme would make even more sense: as the last leg of a faster, more reliable (than ships and lorries) delivery system for manufactured goods,  which will be increasingly customised, in smaller batches, with ever more desire for shorter lead in times from manufacture to receipt.

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