By Michael Wolf
Why use a drone or sidewalk delivery robot to deliver packages when you can have them sent directly to your kitchen via a series of tubes?
No, I’m not referring to Ted Stevens’ imagining of the Internet or a plotline from a Steampunk novel, but one startup’s vision of an underground delivery network that would send packages hurling towards their end destination at speeds of up to 75 miles per hour.
That startup is Pipedream Labs, which has a plan to build an underground pipe network for near-instant delivery of physical goods. The idea, which is one of those that is so crazy you can’t figure out if it’s brilliant or stupid, works like this:
The Pipedream delivery system would be a citywide underground delivery network that utilizes pipes and electric-powered delivery pods to shuttle things around at high speeds. It’s essentially a Hyperloop for delivery, only instead of transporting people, it will bring you the latest Amazon package or hamburger from your favorite restaurant.
While the initial plan is to create a “middle mile” network for long-haul delivery across cities, the company’s CTO says they have a vision for eventually delivering products directly into consumers’ homes. He envisions a new kind of home appliance called the Home Portal which would enable “cheap, fast, and environmentally friendly delivery of groceries, food, and packages.”
The delivery infrastructure will be PVC piping, the same kind used by city utilities for plumbing or electrical systems. In fact, the company says they plan on making all infrastructure usable by utilities “if needed” or “in the event that PipeDream migrates to an alternative delivery method (Star Trek Transporter?) or ceases operations”.
Packages would be delivered “intra-district” to different parts of the city and would go to what the founder describes as delivery nodes.
The nodes will utilize delivery portals, vending machine like kiosks that would hand off goods to a customer or to a last-mile delivery person or robot. Portals hand off packages through a hatch and can cache up to 8 delivery pods at a time, allowing it – for a limited amount of time at least – to act like an Amazon storage locker.
Delivery pods are 10.8″ in diameter by 18″ in length and have a theoretical speed of over 110 miles per hour (but will likely move around at a speed of 60 to 75 miles per hour when in operation). They have two sections, a drive section (which includes the motor, electronics, and battery) and a removable cargo carrier section.
Pipedream envisions all sorts of products delivered via their pods, including food. According to the company, the internal capacity has room to carry 95% of grocery items and most any type of prepared food from a restaurant (except for pizza, which the company says they are working on).
The analyst in me looks at an idea like this and says there’s no way it would work. The cost of building out the network, the difficulty of navigating city bureaucracies to get a network deployed, not to mention the many technical challenges of creating an underground system and operating it all seem insurmountably difficult.
But as I think about a world where ever-more products are delivered to our homes, it doesn’t take long to realize we’ll need a variety of creative solutions beyond the status quo. Car delivery doesn’t make sense long-term for small packages, but we also don’t want to live in a dystopia with drone darkened skies or sidewalk robots congesting our walkways. Taking a portion of package delivery underground may make the most sense long term.
Of course, it will take a while before we ever know if Pipedream’s, um, dream comes true. The company has only raised $1.6 million in seed funding so far and would need to tap into utility loan funding to build a network of the size they envision.
But who knows? Maybe Elon Musk will embrace underground delivery the same way he’s helped push underground transportation forward and invest in the company, or a forward-looking city will work with Pipedream to fund an underground delivery network for stuff over the next decade.
Either way, an operating underground delivery network is an interesting new idea and one that might have a future in an increasingly e-commerce-driven world.