Good Thinking

UK company wants to deliver parcels through an automated underground tunnel system

UK company wants to deliver pa...
UK firm Mole Solutions is exploring the possibility of using small robot trains running on underground tracks to manage deliveries (Photo: Mole Solutions)
UK firm Mole Solutions is exploring the possibility of using small robot trains running on underground tracks to manage deliveries (Photo: Mole Solutions)
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UK firm Mole Solutions is exploring the possibility of using small robot trains running on underground tracks to manage deliveries (Photo: Mole Solutions)
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UK firm Mole Solutions is exploring the possibility of using small robot trains running on underground tracks to manage deliveries (Photo: Mole Solutions)
Capsules would not power themselves, instead electricity would be used to run linear induction motors built into the track (Photo: Mole Solutions)
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Capsules would not power themselves, instead electricity would be used to run linear induction motors built into the track (Photo: Mole Solutions)
If successful, the plan could significantly cut down on traffic congestion (Photo: Mole Solutions)
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If successful, the plan could significantly cut down on traffic congestion (Photo: Mole Solutions)

Drones flown by Amazon aren't the only way we could be getting our parcels delivered in the near future. UK firm Mole Solutions is exploring the possibility of using small robot trains running on underground tracks to manage deliveries, and it's just received funding from the British government to help test the viability of the proposal.

The system Mole Solutions wants to put in place uses magnetic wave propulsion, similar to that used by Japan's super-fast Shinkansen maglev train. In fact, the technology used here is simpler, cheaper and generates much less heat than maglev.

There's plenty to recommend the idea: no deliveries held up by traffic congestion and no need to wait for drivers to become available before you can get your hands on the latest Blu-ray boxset. Mole Solutions says the small tunnels could be installed alongside existing transport infrastructure and create a system that ran 24 hours a day.

The steel carriages would run down concrete tubes measuring between 1.3 m (4.27 ft) and 2.4 m (7.87 ft), while the loading and unloading would also be handled automatically. Unloaded pallets would be stored in secure, temperature-controlled units at specified depots – the box wouldn't trundle straight up to your front door (at least not yet).

Capsules would not power themselves, instead electricity would be used to run linear induction motors built into the track (Photo: Mole Solutions)
Capsules would not power themselves, instead electricity would be used to run linear induction motors built into the track (Photo: Mole Solutions)

Capsules would not power themselves, instead electricity would be used to run linear induction motors (LIMs) built into the track. The subsequent magnetic fields would then propel the capsules to their destination. As the Independent reports, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in Britain has stumped up cash for a trial run in Northampton.

"Congestion is a global issue and we could take a significant volume of traffic off the roads, not just in the UK but in countries like China and India," Mole Solutions chief Roger Miles told reporters. "The bounds of this are limitless." He compared the system to water supply networks that work almost invisibly to the end user, and it's not the first time innovators have tried to find new uses for underground routes.

There are benefits for supply companies like DHL or UPS too, as they could get packages to customers more quickly for less cost. Despite the enthusiasm for the idea, all the parties involved admit there's a long way to go before we're picking up our deliveries from a Mole Solutions drop-off point. The small-scale trial is designed to investigate the commercial, environmental and socio-economic impact of such a scheme before a decision is made on whether it can be rolled out elsewhere.

Below you can see a short video setting out Mole Solutions' inspiration for the project.

Source: Mole Solutions

Mole Solutions: A better way to deliver palletised freight for 21st century supply chains.

12 comments
Rehab
Perhaps clean electric trucks and bikes on roads. Get rid of 50% of cars, trucks can do deliveries between 11 pm and 6 am. The answer to congestion is removing 1/2 the automobile traffic not trucks.
Fretting Freddy the Ferret pressing the Fret
Less steel boxes rolling on the road means there will be less accidents with other road users, so I'm all for it. These tunnel infrastructure will pave way for connecting, transferring and transporting cargo to future evacuated tubes stretching continental distances at high speeds.
Robert Walther
I believe that there already exist some mothballed, delivery tunnel infra -structure in a few cities. London, Chicago and maybe New York? Probably others... Tunneling from scratch sounds like a nightmare of red tape, not to mention the cost.
Bob Flint
What is it that everyone seems to be getting delivered? Is Amazon and The other Chinese distributor becoming the answer to laziness, and killing the local economy? It seems that the push to get people to buy more crap is never ending, I thought the drone delivery was dumb, but this is even more far fetched dedicated delivery underground how ridiculous. Might as well float the stuff through the sewers and sell those shopaholics fishing gear, to retrieve their crap. I can count on one hand the number of real requirements to get something delivered to my door in the past 57 years, which this concept can't do anyway. Not to mention the unbelievably high cost to dig, & maintaining the tunnels, heck we can't even afford to do this for human transport, at about 1 million dollars per foot for a subway system. Hey there is an idea if you need that stuff so badly, get off your fat ass take a walk, bike or local transport. Of course if you can't get out then local unemployed people can pick up pretty much anything for you, and bring it to your door.
Patrick Begley
In Germany, 90% of freight by train, I would to see trucks not on the road, at weekends,
VirtualGathis
@Rehab - but the secret to reducing your roadway maintenance costs by 65%+ is to eliminate trucks, particularly heavy trucks.
Nicky Hansard
@Bob Flint Are you ok mate?
windykites
How about attaching a small carriage to the back of each underground train? As the train pulls into the station the mail carriage opens automatically and dispenses its cargo, unseen by the train passengers, because it is hidden by the end of the platform, which is only as long as the train. The system designed in the article sounds far-fetched. There is definitely no need to have maglev, and as someone else mentioned the cost of tunnelling and the logistical nightmare of avoiding or other tunnels and suchlike is going to be prohibitive. I'm surprised the British government is sponsoring this. I thought we were trying to save money not squander it. Some government official has fallen for a smooth talking salesman. Patrick, the German lorries are all over here! Along with all the other EU Members lorries, who buy their diesel abroad, and don't pay any Road Tax.
John Hogan
I've been talking about this for years! I call it the SPS - small parcel system. It seems like the logical next step in some ways. They just need to be large enough to hold the majority of the most common items we need at home and work. Maybe a box of paper or a water cooler bottle? It would go hand in hand with super markets which are just robotic warehouses. You order online, the warehouse picks your order, packs it in one or more "parcels" and they're whisked to you via a system of pipes laid under the street. I wouldn't be thinking about rails though. Just a system of air pressure differentials with periodic pumping stations to maintain things. Something like this is bound to happen eventually. It's hilarious to know someone is working on this :-)
Daishi
@Bob Flint I order a lot of stuff online for a handful of different reasons. If I know exactly what I want its faster finding it online than driving store to store walking up and down aisles. There is a larger selection online, prices are usually cheaper, and its easy to read reviews and compare products to select one that will probably work. > Of course if you can't get out then local unemployed people can pick up pretty much anything for you, and bring it to your door. They seem less willing to do this for me but even then should I trust them with the money or my credit card to do a good job selecting the right item? I do live in a fairly remote area with stores that are generally closed when I am available and the stores with more forgiving hours are a significant drive. I can often ship stuff here in less time than it takes to get it from the store during their regular hours. At first we were just using Amazon prime to cover 2 day shipping for the year, then we started using subscribe and save for some common items for a 15% discount, now we have been using Prime Pantry for some other more grocery items that has a $6 flat rate per shipped box. We have a big family. Things like paper towels, toilet paper, dog food, diapers, k-cups, and drinks are all subscribed to. Other non perishable items like cereals, granola bars, soap, cleaning supplies etc. are also ordered online. That way when you go to the grocery store with the kids you have a much simpler mission because a lot of the heavy, bulky, common items are already covered. Also, unless you have time to go through coupon books, clip coupons, and sort through them all at the register the local grocery store here is really expensive to use. It's manageable for people who are retired but people who have busy lives have a huge penalty.