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"The Intertubes": a packet-switched underground goods-delivery network with utility infrastructure expansion


Description

Attribution

This vignette, alongside a number of others, has been developed as part of the EPSRC-funded All-in-One Project [website: http://allinone.uk.net/], examining possible paths to infrastructure rationalisation by way of delivering multiple needs and services via a single utility system, or as few systems as possible.

This vignette in particular undertakes to approach the problem from the most difficult end first, by treating the requirement for the physical displacement of goods and materials (and people) to be an irreducable necessity to any recognisable modern economy. While more speculative future technological developments might reduce this requirement considerably (e.g. ubiquitous 3D printing at POS or in the home), only the advent of instantaneous matter teleportation can remove it entirely -- and this correspondant submits that, if that should ever happen, all bets are off. ;)

With the continuing need for transportation assumed, we can turn to existing and mature technologies and methods to build a transportation system that not only delivers a better service at a lower cost, but which also offers dramatic improvements in urban quality-of-life, significant reductions in carbon emissions and highway maintenance outlay, greater safety levels, and a significant source of employment opportunities.

Idea seed: Foodtubes

"The Intertubes" draws heavily for initial inspiration upon the "Foodtubes" proposal [Hodson et al, n.d.] for a "lightweight, underground, rapid pipeline-capsule food & freight transport" system, with large loops of underground tunnels carrying a variety of specialist capsule types. The network would be constructed using "trenchless" tunnelling methods, and would have terminals at "supermarkets, shopping malls and markets, colleges, schools, large offices & institutions and at waste recycling depots"; the rhetorical thrust of the proposal is a sizeable reduction of goods vehicle traffic on UK roads, especially in urban areas, with a concomitant reduction in pollutant and GHG emissions, and energy consumption.

An early draft of the Foodtubes proposal suggested two possibilities for pig propulsion: fluid dynamics (e.g. water, compressed air), or linear induction motors, as used on urban light railways and interurban high-speed rail links all over the world. Later drafts focussed their support on the use of LIMs, and this vignette incorporates that preference.

Beyond Foodtubes: a packet-switched rhizomatic network, plus power and comms ducting

This vignette develops the Foodtubes idea in two novel ways. Firstly, it exchanges the ring-network topology of Foodtubes for a rhizomatic, non-hierarchical network topology, with traffic management handled by computer in a similar manner to the "packet-switching" protocols that underpin the Internet. Such protocols respond effectively to short-term fluctuations in traffic load, making most efficient use of the system capacity available. They also allow for swift re-routing around damaged connections in the network, making for resilience through effective (re)deployment of redundant capacity.

Secondly, this vignette adopts a "single-duct" approach to infrastructural development and capacity expansion. During the construction of the tunnel system, auxiliary pipes and ducts could be run alongside the main Intertubes ducts, far more cheaply than running new ducts in separate project. This means the routing of high capacity electricity and telecommunications cables (e.g. HVDC cabling for the former, and high-cap optical fibre for the latter) would spread across the areas served by the transportation network, increasing the resilience of provision of these services as well as ensuring said networks can be easily maintained (e.g. by robots or drones that travel the Intertubes tunnels).

The Intertubes concept offers a system which could provide a majority of the major utility services to a deployment area: energy, digital communications bandwidth, waste disposal, goods transportation. With a shift to delivered bottled water for drinking requirements and increased rainwater/greywater recapture, load on water mains networks in Intertubes regions could be reduced considerably. The system is not suited to folding in sewerage capture and treatment (primarily because it is not a "door to door" network that connects individual households), but load mitigation in parallel with changes in water provision could reduce systemic load to a point where existing sewerage capacity becomes plentiful.

Human transit?

It is assumed that the reduction in freight vehicle road use comcomitant with the roll-out of a network as described above would radically change the character of urban and intercity road traffic, allowing existant and/or enhanced modes of public mass transit to operate more efficiently and cheaply, and (in urban areas especially) opening up the roads to safer use by pedestrians and cyclists. The rapid proliferation of car-pooling start-ups in London suggests that a decline in private car ownership in cities may be imminent, and the long-term upward trend of oil and energy prices will exacerbate this trend; less private vehicles means yet less highway maintenance expenditure, freeing up fund for the expansion of public transport options.

However, there is no reason that the Intertubes system as described above couldn't incorporate two different sorts of tunnel – e.g. small-gauge high-speed for goods, larger-gauge lower-speed for human transit – on major interurban trunk routes, with network growth and capacity expansion being driven by demand in an organic fashion.

Technologies needed

The great advantage of the Intertubes vignette is that it doesn't depend on any speculative new invention or technological improvement; rather than using new technologies, it recombines existing proven techniques in a novel configuration.

  • Trenchless tunneling techniques (starting with Mark Brunel's first tunnel under the Thames, ending at today's sophisticated and steerable methodologies, e.g. horizontal directional drilling, auger boring)
  • Packet-switching network management protocols (as deployed in the internet's protocol stacks, and elsewhere)
  • Rhizomatic network structures (as developed patiently by evolution over millennia)
  • Linear induction motors (a maturing transportation technology that still has room for commerically viable improvements in efficiency and cost)
  • HVDC electric grid cabling (all the capacity of overhead pylon lines in a much smaller conduit)

 

Hurdles to realisation

The principle hurdles to deploying a network as described above are economic and sociopolitical in nature; it would be necessary to create political willpower around the creation of such a system, as well as to gather popular public support from the citizenry; regrettably, the latter of those two tasks is probably the easier, and the former will encounter a number of powerful lobbying forces (e.g. [UK-centric, but probably fairly universal nonetheless] Big Oil, car manufacturing industry, transportation unions, fiscal and social conservatism).

Works cited:

Hodson, N. et al. "Foodtubes" [proposal and research documents, online] Available at <www.noelhodson.com/index_files/foodtubes-project-team.htm and linked pages>; accessed 3 May 2012.

Summary


Category of the action

Reducing emissions from transportation


What actions do you propose?

Attribution

This vignette, alongside a number of others, has been developed as part of the EPSRC-funded All-in-One Project [website: http://allinone.uk.net/], examining possible paths to infrastructure rationalisation by way of delivering multiple needs and services via a single utility system, or as few systems as possible.

This vignette in particular undertakes to approach the problem from the most difficult end first, by treating the requirement for the physical displacement of goods and materials (and people) to be an irreducable necessity to any recognisable modern economy. While more speculative future technological developments might reduce this requirement considerably (e.g. ubiquitous 3D printing at POS or in the home), only the advent of instantaneous matter teleportation can remove it entirely -- and this correspondant submits that, if that should ever happen, all bets are off. ;)

With the continuing need for transportation assumed, we can turn to existing and mature technologies and methods to build a transportation system that not only delivers a better service at a lower cost, but which also offers dramatic improvements in urban quality-of-life, significant reductions in carbon emissions and highway maintenance outlay, greater safety levels, and a significant source of employment opportunities.

Idea seed: Foodtubes

"The Intertubes" draws heavily for initial inspiration upon the "Foodtubes" proposal [Hodson et al, n.d.] for a "lightweight, underground, rapid pipeline-capsule food & freight transport" system, with large loops of underground tunnels carrying a variety of specialist capsule types. The network would be constructed using "trenchless" tunnelling methods, and would have terminals at "supermarkets, shopping malls and markets, colleges, schools, large offices & institutions and at waste recycling depots"; the rhetorical thrust of the proposal is a sizeable reduction of goods vehicle traffic on UK roads, especially in urban areas, with a concomitant reduction in pollutant and GHG emissions, and energy consumption.

An early draft of the Foodtubes proposal suggested two possibilities for pig propulsion: fluid dynamics (e.g. water, compressed air), or linear induction motors, as used on urban light railways and interurban high-speed rail links all over the world. Later drafts focussed their support on the use of LIMs, and this vignette incorporates that preference.

Beyond Foodtubes: a packet-switched rhizomatic network, plus power and comms ducting

This vignette develops the Foodtubes idea in two novel ways. Firstly, it exchanges the ring-network topology of Foodtubes for a rhizomatic, non-hierarchical network topology, with traffic management handled by computer in a similar manner to the "packet-switching" protocols that underpin the Internet. Such protocols respond effectively to short-term fluctuations in traffic load, making most efficient use of the system capacity available. They also allow for swift re-routing around damaged connections in the network, making for resilience through effective (re)deployment of redundant capacity.

Secondly, this vignette adopts a "single-duct" approach to infrastructural development and capacity expansion. During the construction of the tunnel system, auxiliary pipes and ducts could be run alongside the main Intertubes ducts, far more cheaply than running new ducts in separate project. This means the routing of high capacity electricity and telecommunications cables (e.g. HVDC cabling for the former, and high-cap optical fibre for the latter) would spread across the areas served by the transportation network, increasing the resilience of provision of these services as well as ensuring said networks can be easily maintained (e.g. by robots or drones that travel the Intertubes tunnels).

The Intertubes concept offers a system which could provide a majority of the major utility services to a deployment area: energy, digital communications bandwidth, waste disposal, goods transportation. With a shift to delivered bottled water for drinking requirements and increased rainwater/greywater recapture, load on water mains networks in Intertubes regions could be reduced considerably. The system is not suited to folding in sewerage capture and treatment (primarily because it is not a "door to door" network that connects individual households), but load mitigation in parallel with changes in water provision could reduce systemic load to a point where existing sewerage capacity becomes plentiful.

Human transit?

It is assumed that the reduction in freight vehicle road use comcomitant with the roll-out of a network as described above would radically change the character of urban and intercity road traffic, allowing existant and/or enhanced modes of public mass transit to operate more efficiently and cheaply, and (in urban areas especially) opening up the roads to safer use by pedestrians and cyclists. The rapid proliferation of car-pooling start-ups in London suggests that a decline in private car ownership in cities may be imminent, and the long-term upward trend of oil and energy prices will exacerbate this trend; less private vehicles means yet less highway maintenance expenditure, freeing up fund for the expansion of public transport options.

However, there is no reason that the Intertubes system as described above couldn't incorporate two different sorts of tunnel – e.g. small-gauge high-speed for goods, larger-gauge lower-speed for human transit – on major interurban trunk routes, with network growth and capacity expansion being driven by demand in an organic fashion.

Technologies needed

The great advantage of the Intertubes vignette is that it doesn't depend on any speculative new invention or technological improvement; rather than using new technologies, it recombines existing proven techniques in a novel configuration.

  • Trenchless tunneling techniques (starting with Mark Brunel's first tunnel under the Thames, ending at today's sophisticated and steerable methodologies, e.g. horizontal directional drilling, auger boring)
  • Packet-switching network management protocols (as deployed in the internet's protocol stacks, and elsewhere)
  • Rhizomatic network structures (as developed patiently by evolution over millennia)
  • Linear induction motors (a maturing transportation technology that still has room for commerically viable improvements in efficiency and cost)
  • HVDC electric grid cabling (all the capacity of overhead pylon lines in a much smaller conduit)

 

Hurdles to realisation

The principle hurdles to deploying a network as described above are economic and sociopolitical in nature; it would be necessary to create political willpower around the creation of such a system, as well as to gather popular public support from the citizenry; regrettably, the latter of those two tasks is probably the easier, and the former will encounter a number of powerful lobbying forces (e.g. [UK-centric, but probably fairly universal nonetheless] Big Oil, car manufacturing industry, transportation unions, fiscal and social conservatism).

Works cited:

Hodson, N. et al. "Foodtubes" [proposal and research documents, online] Available at <www.noelhodson.com/index_files/foodtubes-project-team.htm and linked pages>; accessed 3 May 2012.


Who will take these actions?


Where will these actions be taken?


How much will emissions be reduced or sequestered vs. business as usual levels?


What are other key benefits?


What are the proposal’s costs?


Time line


Related proposals


References