Home » Smart Cities » Surmounting the Last Mile Delivery Challenge is Urban Areas, Part 1: Pipe Dreams

Surmounting the Last Mile Delivery Challenge is Urban Areas, Part 1: Pipe Dreams

August 24, 2011


Delivering goods to final destinations (i.e., the “last mile” challenge) remains problematic for freight haulers in many urban environments. Towns and cities whose histories span millennia often have narrow streets unsuited for regular delivery vehicles. Many are also overcrowded with vehicles that cause traffic jams and pollute the air. Over the past decade, a number of novel (and sometimes quirky) ideas for urban and remote delivery have surfaced. What started me thinking about the last mile challenge was an article in The Economist that talked about the potential usefulness of pipes for moving packages in urban areas. [“Put that in your pipe and poke it,” 6 January 2011] The article explains:

“Enthusiasts of the digital economy sometimes forget that bits are not everything. However important information is in transforming business, most of what is actually bought and sold is still physical goods, and those goods need to be delivered to the customer. Unlike information technology, though, freight transport has not evolved much during the past few decades. It takes only a few seconds to choose and buy something from an online store, but several days for it then to reach the purchaser. That process also burns oil, contributes to traffic jams and makes the planet’s atmosphere a little warmer by releasing carbon dioxide. Freight transport could thus use some fresh ideas. Or at least a new version of an old idea. And that is exactly what Franco Cotana, an engineering physicist at the University of Perugia, in Italy, has in mind. He proposes to revive, with a modern twist, an extinct technology called the pneumatic pipe.”

Some bank drive-through portals (at least in the U.S.) still use pneumatic tubes into which customers slip containers holding their deposit or withdrawal requests. Up until the late 1950s some department stores and factories used similar systems to carry items (like cash and notes) from place to place within large buildings. Pneumatic tubes are still around, but they are nowhere near as ubiquitous as they were early last century. The article continues:

“In the late 19th and early 20th century, underground tubes were used in many cities to speed up the transport of mail between post offices and government buildings. Letters were put into capsules, the capsules into the tubes, and compressed air was then used to push the capsules from one station to the next. It was not uncommon at the time to think that pneumatic post of this sort would develop into a wide network, like telephony or electricity. In 1900 Charles Emory Smith, then postmaster-general of the United States, wrote that by the end of the decade he expected the ‘extension of the pneumatic tube system to every house, thus insuring the immediate delivery of mail as soon as it arrives in the city’. The reason this never happened, Dr Cotana observes, is that air compressors are expensive to operate and maintain, and the energy they produce dissipates quickly, so capsules can cover only short distances. But technology now exists to overcome those limitations.”

The technology to which Dr. Cotana refers does not involve improved air compressors (they are still expensive to operate and maintain); rather, Cotana is referring to an entirely different technology — magnetic levitation. The article explains:

“Pipenet, a system Dr Cotana patented in 2003 and has been developing since then, is based on a network of metal pipes about 60cm (two feet) in diameter. Instead of air pressure, it uses magnetic fields. These fields, generated by devices called linear synchronous motors, both levitate the capsules and propel them forward. The capsules are routed through the network by radio transponders incorporated within them. At each bifurcation of the pipe, the transponder communicates the capsule’s destination and the magnets pull it to the left or the right, as appropriate. Air pumps are involved, but their role is limited to creating a partial vacuum in the pipes in order to reduce resistance to the capsules’ movement. This way, Dr Cotana calculates, capsules carrying up to 50kg of goods could travel at up to 1,500kph — so you could be wearing a pair of jeans or taking photographs with a new camera only a couple of hours after placing your order.”

I think that a 1500 kph (772 mph) journey through a pipe qualifies as a wild ride! Admit it, the idea is intriguing. Goods could be stored in warehouses far from crowded city centers and rushed quickly to stores where the goods could be delivered. The one drawback, as you might expect, is cost. According to the article, the cost could “be kept below €2.5m per kilometre ($5m per mile)” if “the tubes could use existing rights of way alongside roads and railways.” As the article concludes, “Whether that is cheap enough for the system to be viable remains to be seen.” Apparently, this is not simply a pipedream(pardon the pun). The article reports that Cotana’s team has “completed a feasibility study for a pipeline network in Perugia, a medieval city whose narrow, steep streets make existing means of goods delivery particularly inefficient. This study suggests the system would repay the cost of building it within seven years.” The article further reports that the Chinese are showing interest in the system.


Professor Cotana’s team is not the only group looking to use pipes to carry freight. Designer Phillip Hermes recommends using sewerage systems for transporting goods. [“Robotic Moles deliver goods through the sewers,” by Darren Quick, Gizmag, 4 August 2009] Quick reports:

“Although the first sewers date back to ancient times, concerns about public health in the 19th century saw many cities construct extensive underground sewer systems to help control outbreaks of disease. Some of these sewers evolved from open drains along the center of streets that were covered to provide, not only cleaner, but also wider and therefore less crowded streets. Now designer Phillip Hermes has come up with a concept that could also reduce traffic congestion on crowded city roads by turning the sewerage system into a system for transporting goods.”

Although I’m unaware of any cities seriously considering implementing this concept, it has been well thought out. Quick explains:

“Hermes’ idea … is called the Urban Mole. It consists of a small transportation unit – the Mole – which can be filled with goods and sent from a packing-station, post-office, or private building with an advanced sewer-connection. It might not sound hygienic, but the Mole itself would travel along a rail positioned at the top of the sewer pipe to reduce the chances of contamination. Each Mole is also hermetically sealed and features a round shape with a surface that draws on the lotus-effect to repel water and make cleaning easier. Electricity to drive the electric motor of each Mole is supplied by the rails. Since the sewer system is structured like a road network where more traffic means the bigger the pipe, the Mole would depend on the larger pipes, which run under busy streets. For this reason you wouldn’t expect to wait at your toilet bowl for a delivery, instead you would need to go to the nearest ‘Molestation’, which would consist of a special port that ensures customers only come into contact with the Mole’s interior instead of the outer shell.”

According to Quick, the “Mole” would probably carry less Cotana’s mag-lev system because it “is a little bigger than an average shoebox.” Whereas Cotana’s system could be used by brick-and-mortar stores to access inventory at warehouses, Hermes’ system would more likely be used for transporting goods ordered on-line. “Hermes foresees a future where running out of a vital ingredient while cooking could be solved by placing an order and heading to the nearest MoleStation for a delivery that would take less than 10 minutes instead of requiring a half-hour drive cross town.”


Hermes’ system should be less expensive to build than Cotana’s because it would use existing pipes; however, Cotana’s system would likely prove more efficient and versatile. Either system would help improve traffic congestion in crowded urban environments. The ideal implementation, of course, would be in areas where the pipe infrastructure could be installed along with other new construction. Both pipe systems would require the cooperation (and probably financial support) of governments. Unfortunately, in the current economic environment, such support is unlikely to emerge.


Tomorrow I’ll discuss some of the ground transportation vehicles that are being designed for use in urban areas.

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