A series of tubes

18.52, Thursday 16 Jun 2022

You wait for ages for the return of internet-inspired tube-based physical goods transport systems then two come along at once.

PipeDreams Labs just raised seed funding to build networks of underground PVC pipes in cities, to be used by self-routing, self-driving robot pods that carry cargo.

There’s more in their Twitter thread. The 14 second concept video is neat – it’s a cupboard in your kitchen that pings like your inbox when your groceries arrive.

This is relatively established tech (pipes and pods). What’s new is the self-driving and the user interface.

The pods can carry anything up to 10 inches in diameter, which is (according the FAQ) enough for 95% of groceries and almost all preparing food deliveries – except pizza.

So… New pizza form factor incoming? Feels relatively straightforward to reformat food shapes.

I wrote last year about a national packet-switched drone delivery network, riffing on the Paris pneumatique poste which opened in 1866 and had automatic routing of physical items in the 1930s.

At the time, the key part for me was an interoperable protocol for packet-switched drone delivery in theory over the entire country – essentially: TCP/IP for stuff.

And that’s what grabs me about PipeDream Labs too. Can the system be just an alternative “transport layer” for an open protocol that any company can plug self-driving matter-packets into, regardless of whether they use pipes or drones or motorbikes?

Definitely a role for government, if they had an ounce of imagination in their industry policy/national infrastructure plans.


Laundry Jet is a system of pneumatic tubes, installed in your home, to carry dirty clothes from bedrooms to the laundry room.

It’s not new but a video went viral a few days ago.

I like this (reddit): you throw your laundry towards the wall outlet, and a proximity sensor opens the door and the vacuum snatches the item out of the air.

That’s the kind of interface I expect when it comes to domestic robots (which this is, on a spectrum with Roomba and dishwashers). Automation is no good if it doesn’t also relieve you of the bureaucracy surrounding the task – imagine if Laundry Jet required you to carefully fold your clothes and place them on a platter. It’s the air grab that makes it.

Despite that: it all seems… a little over-engineered? I mean, my house is nowhere near large enough to require a secret corridor behind the walls exclusively for my pants. And goodness knows what you do in the event of a blockage. If there some crazy acidic fabric-specific liquid drainclear that you pour down the pipes to dissolve the sock bolus?

THAT SAID: my memory is vague on this, but I swear my nan had a house with a central vacuum system? There was a little suction port by the floor in all the rooms. That was cool. So I’m not against old-is-new-again home infrastructure.

A general purpose Laundry Jet-alike would be handy for the home.

Like: it would be handy to have a port that I put things through, and they show up in a different room. For carrying groceries from the front door to the kitchen, or weeding the garden and carrying it out the front.

I don’t care about speed; I just care about not carrying.

So I guess the ideal interface is that I can tap any item, wherever it is, and announce the destination with my voice, and then at some point over the next few hours, a robot (somehow) picks it up (somehow) and deposits it where I said it should go. You don’t need pneumatic tubes for that.

No having to wait for the robot to arrive. It’s async. The key part of the interface is that lack of bureaucracy. That’s the lesson for me.

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