Delivery companies are literally digging deeper to develop new systems for getting packages quickly to customers with one futuristic idea having roots in the past.

Amazon received a patent for a system to deliver goods via a dedicated network of underground tunnels, according to recent news reports. The 33-page application lays out the specifications for a network that could transport packages via conveyor belts or rails, or even through pneumatic tubes, explains GeekWire. “The system could connect rail stations, airports, fulfillment centers, locker storage sites and, of course, customers,” avoiding the congestion of traditional transportation networks.

It’s back to the future in some ways. In the late 19th century, the U.S. Postal Service experimented in a handful of cities with pneumatic mail, or mail sent through tubes via a cartridge that was propelled by compressed air pushing it to the end of the tube. Picture a scaled up version of the cartridges and tubes that carry checks from the car to the teller at a drive-in bank.

The system, developed by Western Union Telegraph Co. in New York City, allowed for the transfer of messages between the main Post Office and neighborhood post offices and railroad terminals. Pneumatic mail was speedy and reliable, particularly valuable qualities in New York City, where distances that once took up to 40 minutes by mail wagon “could be covered by a cylinder sent through the pneumatic tube network in as little as 7 minutes,”  according the National Postal Museum. 

But pneumatic mail was costly because the tubing was dug, laid, and owned by private companies – meaning rent and labor costs. And it was sometimes problematic. Tubes had to be built around sewage pipes and gas lines, thus in some cities, such as Philadelphia, they had to be buried below water level, which occasionally led to flooding.

Back here in the present, it’s not clear if or when Amazon plans to build an underground network, but the company – and others – are thinking about it. British company Mole Solutions has proposed building a network of pipelines for freight delivery, even setting up 344-foot-long demonstrator track to test the technology.

A plan by a Swiss company Cargo Sous Terrain is to build an underground freight delivery network that will use autonomous vehicles traveling on rails to ferry pallets and packages between Switzerland’s major cities and towns. And Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, has laid out Hyperloop, a concept that calls for building a network of tubes that lets magnetically levitating pods zoom through at near-supersonic speeds.

Of course, you probably wouldn’t want to bet against Amazon on a bold idea. This is the same company that’s looking at autonomous drones, bicycle couriers, and branded fleets of airplanes and trucks as possible delivery options. Now if this network could serve as an alternate route for drivers along I-95 on the congested eastern seaboard, Amazon would really be on to something.

Do you see underground delivery systems as realistic options for moving packages quickly? What other technologies should be explored? 

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  • anon

    Although we have had many innovations in the 21st century, the private and public sector still use the same basic technology to deliver mail and packages to consumers. The recent bloom of online shopping and the increased demand by consumers for faster delivery has caused both the public and private sector to look for alternative delivery methods that both satisfy the cost and delivery demands of their customers. The large initial capital cost of constructing a pneumatic mail system is one of the hurtles that makes the implementation of pneumatic mail less cost effective than other proposed delivery methods. In addition to the large initial capital cost, the problems that plagued pneumatic mail in the past, as referenced by this blog, would require more research and development, further increasing the cost pneumatic mail implementation. The 21st-century economy is constantly evolving due to constant innovation and competition meaning that the 21st century needs a delivery system that can quickly adjust to the changing demands of a 21st-century economy. The expensive construction costs and slow implementation process pneumatic mail disqualifies it from being an option for the fast paced future of delivery in the 21st century. Given the large capital and research and development cost that pneumatic mail will require, it does not appear to be the light, fast, and cost effective delivery method for the 21st century. In reality, even the light, fast, and cost effective delivery methods that propose using drones are temporary systems that will eventually go obsolete due to the application economy. With the rise of 3 dimensional printers that can print different variations of cloth, food, plastic, and metal, a future where consumers can purchase their groceries, clothes, and gifts on their phones and come home hours later to find their purchases printed by their 3 dimensional printer at home is not so far fetched. In the immediate future, the public and private sector should focus on developing technologies similar to the light, efficient, and cost effective nature of drones and keep a cautious gaze towards the long term arch of delivery in the 21st century.

    Apr 03, 2017

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