The organized communication of personal mail and packages has been a staple of civilization for thousands of years, even if it only became truly ubiquitous in the Industrial Age with the emergence of mechanized transport and large corporate-like government bureaucracies. But automated packet transportation is a historically recent concept, first appearing in rudimentary form with the introduction of very simple mechanical cable shuttle devices, perhaps as early as the 18th century, and then seeming to culminate in the development of pneumatic tube transport systems in the late 19th century and finally –and curiously– going moribund by the end of the 20th century. Once common in office buildings in the western world in the early 20th century and once planned to evolve into nation-scale networks, pneumatic tube systems were largely abandoned by the end of the 20th century because most of what these systems communicated –paper media of no more than a dozen or so pages– had become much more cheaply and quickly communicated electronically and what that electronic technology couldn’t carry was typically too bulky or heavy to be handled by pneumatic tube technology anyway. Yet even as this technology seemed to be going moribund, there, ironically, came an explosion in demand for quick or overnight packet delivery with a resurgence in such primitive transport as bicycle messengers and a radical reinvention of traditional postal package transit by new private shipping companies –typified by the rise of FedEx. To explain this situation by modern analogy, it’s as if office Local Area Networks went obsolete for lack of improvement in its early technology at the same time the Internet was invented with technology even older!
While we now think of pneumatic tube systems as obsolete, truth be told, their potential in a community context (on the Wide Area Network level, so to speak) remains, to this day, unexplored. As with so many industries, once pneumatic tube system companies became wedded to a corporate market, they became largely incapable of innovation or of imagining the technology’s use outside of this dead-end context. The one great plan that could have overcome this –a plan by the New York Post Office of the 1930s to implement a city-wide pneumatic tube system– was destroyed by all-too-typical political corruption; a change to a new postmaster heavily personally invested in auto industry stock. Thus we were never given an opportunity to see what a public package Internet on the scale of the largest city in the world was capable of. It’s a largely unknown tragedy. But then, there’s a strong possibility that, by the end of the 20th century this particular technology would still have become obsolete for the same reasons it did in the office environment, though with implementation on this scale and so much commerce ultimately dependent upon it there would have been more likelihood of some upgrade of this technology to overcome its limitations and increase its capabilities rather than simple abandonment.
Considering this technology and the need for material efficiency in the culture of Aquarius, Marshal Savage realized that the pneumatic tube technology could afford an incredible reduction in material waste for a colony by the elimination of much of the packaging associated with common goods while also producing a huge benefit in standard of living through increased convenience. This would also enable the automated use of media and tool libraries. And so he proposed that Aquarius colonies should implement a pneumatic tube network of superior design that could be used in conjunction with the community computer networks and automated storage facilities. A very sound idea, except that he overestimated the potential of pneumatic transport technology and underestimated the diversity of goods a contemporary system of this sort would be expected to deal with.
Today we refer to such systems as Personal Packet Transit systems. (PPT) These are automated package transport systems designed to provide door-to-door communication of packages with little to no human intervention and across most any distance. If this sounds similar to Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) it should because in TMP2 we now understand that the most efficient way to implement this technology is in conjunction with a PRT system, adding greater functionality and capability to both technologies by their unison while greatly economizing on their independent implementation. This unison is achieved by combining short-haul small-scale conveyor systems with intermediate or community scale transit and, ultimately global transit by ISO marine container or air container while also employing the use of in-network automated warehousing systems of varying scale. Pneumatic transport technology may be too limiting for this concept and in combination with a PRT is only going to be used for the last few meters of network connection and so an electromechanical conveyor system is likely to be preferable, supporting a variety of nesting container standards and some variation in container composition while limiting cost by limiting these more maintenance-demanding conveyor systems to a short-haul mode, letting the other more robust systems carry packages from there.
The Aquarian PPT system would thus be composed of three basic parts; the short-haul conveyors with local access terminals, a special PPT packet carrier cab designed to work within the community PRT system, and a facility called the SuperStore; an automated warehouse system with a vast assortment of uses.
The minimum standard unit container for the system would be a meter cubed reusable polyethylene box with a grooved inner surface that supports the insert of partitions and modular foam blocks. Several smaller standard containers that fit inside this using the partition grooves would also be used, allowing for light mail pieces and smaller objects. This is the basic unit size the short-haul conveyer would be designed to carry, a shuttle container being used for the smaller units. However, in addition to this there would be a number of nested container sizes that do not use the short-haul conveyors but rather are accessed at a full-scale PRT terminal. Designed to plug directly into a PRT cab ‘bogey’ unit, these would range from a 1x2 meter upright box to a truly large 40’-50’ ISO marine container that would only be accessed in industrial areas.
Containers would feature a digital tag system loaded with source, destination, and sometimes, content information such as images the moment a packet it sent out. Some containers would also feature specialized equipment such as mini temperature control systems or even mini life support systems for transporting things like live seafood. But in general all these containers would be engineered to be reusable, with duty lives of thousands of trips until they are finally recycled for their raw materials.
The standard PPT user access terminals would be very similar in appearance to ‘dumb waiters’ of the early 20th century, usually featuring an adjacent counter space used to package preparation if their not built right into a desk or workstation. Like most of the digital systems on Aquarius, which will be further described in the section on Information Technologies, the PPT would employ a distributed control system based on web-controllers and so the user interface for the terminal would be based on a touch display hosting a front-end program or XML application which talks to the terminal controller. Paired with the user access terminal would be a ‘local node’ PRT/PPT terminal linked to the user access terminal by the short-haul conveyor. The local node terminal provides an access point for the PRT based packet carrier cabs and would use a rotary carriage based ‘buffer’ storage unit that holds containers temporarily while the system waits for pick-up from a passing packet carrier cab. A local node terminal may serve a number of residences or offices along a split or shared conveyor line and in an industrial setting these shared conveyor lines could become a fairly large network running among many workstations. Thus the local node terminal’s controller would be able to route packages along its local conveyers without going through the PRT link. It would also store supplies for users such as empty containers, insert partitions, and foam cushion blocks.
Short-haul conveyors would vary from single lines of only a few meters to more complex arrangements of main and secondary lines extending over greater distances and in some cases branched loops. Generally, through, they would be short and simple, since so much of the transport work is being performed by the PRT. Marshal Savage realized that contemporary electromechanical conveyors tend to be bulky, high cost, and have very low reliability making them unsuited to a fully unattended operating mode. This is probably why he chose pneumatic tube systems as a superior, even if antiquated, technology. But we see this technology as too limited in mass/size capacity and too rough in handling to really be suited to contemporary packet transit needs. But he was certainly correct in that off-the-shelf conveyor systems –though suitable for developing an early PPT system– would not be particular practical on a large scale. Designed for continuous operation and extremely high payload masses as well as continuous human monitoring, they simply aren’t reliable, efficient, or compact enough for a very large system with an intermittent mode of transit now quiet enough for a residential setting. Thus rather than typical conveyor systems based on sets of continuously running belts, chains, and powered rollers, a more likely technology may be a type of ‘shuttle conveyor’ derived from factory workstation shuttle systems which works rather like a PRT in miniature.
Using a shuttle unit composed of a simple open-ended carrier box or frame with drive magnets underneath and on its sides, the system could employ a digitally controlled linear mag-lev motor drive whose track would be as simple as low cost sheets of elastomeric with an integral drive coil grid and integral sensors made with laminate electronics. This drive grid would not be completely powered, only supplying power exactly where it senses a shuttle is, thus saving some energy, and could function in multiple axis, allowing for the switching of routes without a mechanical device and for anti-fouling of the track by side-stepping or jostling of obstructed shuttles. It would also automatically track the shuttles moving along it and prevent collisions or detect obstructions. The system may also operate as an elevator with track sheets arrayed in a square vertical tube, though this would likely only be practical for the relatively low mass of these small single meter PPT containers. Such a system could be as cheap as any pneumatic tube system while offering more capacity and a much smoother gentler ride with a constant container orientation. This could actually make it possible to deliver such delicate payloads as finished cooked meals from colony restaurants.
As noted before, containers larger than the unit meter container would need to employ the normal full size PRT terminals, which would often be very similar in nature but with a full walk-in access doorway. The normal PRT control panels would provide for both PPT and PRT use. Thus these larger containers would be completely outside the network of the short-haul conveyors. How these PPT and PRT terminals are integrated into homes and buildings could vary widely. But a colony would tend to implement the PRT and PPT systems on separate isolated utilities floors above or below the much larger inhabited main levels and so these terminals may feature a vertical lift for access to a main level. Depending on how interior avenues are configured, they may also be implemented along the ‘inner zone’ of a level so as to access dwellings at the edge of a level from the ‘back’. Here both PRT and PPT terminals are likely to be ganged together within large demising walls. This would be likely where there are very wide level terraces, such as near perimeter edges of a colony.
The packet carrier PRT cab would be similar to other utility cabs, consisting of a simple box with open access ports on either side. When stopped and aligned with a local node terminal, a centrally mounted pick-and-place robot would transfer containers from the rotary buffer carriage of the terminal and a set of racks within the cab while automatically reading their ID tags for status tracking. Using a sophisticated time management algorithm, the PPT control computers would decide on whether packages should be carried entirely by the packet carrier unit, brought to the colony’s central SuperStore facility for redistribution, or to another other nearby local node terminal for re-pickup by another packet carrier unit with the destination closer in its current route. These choices could change during the course of transit according to the traffic on the PRT system or failures in the network –such as a blocked terminal. Packets could be tagged as having a time limit for their transit, with return or alternate routing instructions for when their time runs out.
The SuperStore would be a large automated materials handling facility serving essentially as a warehouse and distribution center for the PPT and possibly a location for its main control systems and service facilities. It may be very centralized in organization or distributed as a series of systems spread around deep inside the interior portions of the colony. It would be divided into main and special handling sections, such as refrigerated enclosures, hazardous materials enclosures, or racks with special interfaces for charging built-in devices contained inside containers such as mini-refrigeration units or mini-life-support units. Using a battery of pick-and-place robots moving containers among modular racks, the SuperStore would function almost like a public Internet data server for the material goods of the colony, serving an unlimited assortment of applications beyond the PPT’s basic packet delivery functions, personal, commercial, industrial, and municipal. Here are some examples of its many possible roles;
Virtual Closet: basically the equivalent of a U-store style facility that can pick up and deliver containerized goods to your door, typically using one or two meter boxes but also down to letter packet sizes. This would use a camera feature built into the access terminals, allowing them to take a digital photo of the contents of a container automatically in addition to allowing a manual item listing. Can also be used as a safety deposit box or be programmed to deliver items to certain destinations given a specific date and time or event. This could be used as a kind of automatic will, distributing stored items to pre-assigned people upon a person’s death or at any specific time thereafter. (in theory, a departed person could continue to send birthday or holiday gifts to loved ones for decades after they are gone)
Virtual Warehouse: basically the same thing as the virtual closet but allowing for much more detailed cataloging of goods and the use of containers up to marine shipping container scale. It would also be able to integrate factory management systems so that factory control computers could call up items from the system on their own. This would be especially useful in enabling home-based industry.
Automated Intermodal Transfer: would nest and organize smaller containers for loading by robot into special ISO marine and air cargo containers. This same capability would be used for transferring containers beyond the colony PPT system to other TMP settlements using same or similar PPT technology as well as the more primitive communities still using conventional postal and package delivery services, thus automating package shipping on a global scale.
Community Library: unlike the usual town library, the Aquarius colony library would host a vast diversity of items including different forms of media, toys, works of art, educational artifacts, science specimens, small machines, and many kinds of tools.
Virtual Bazaar: Imagine Amazon if it could deliver to your home in minutes, everyone in the world could be a buyer or seller, and they all had a free choice of selling, auctioning, or bartering. Oh, and you can also get a pizza on-demand. Would combine with the Virtual Warehouse function to eliminate the need for local stock storage. While tourists may tend to use colony shops, the majority of residents would fulfill their needs with this. Would also integrate to a bazaar system across all TMP communities and eventually link to the global digital financial exchange system established collectively in the Foundation and Aquarius phases.
Trash/Recyclables Collection: allows the PPT system to be used to gather trash from all over the colony, sort it for recycling, and deliver it to processing systems. Many public trash cans could be built into simplified PPT terminals to automatically send their contents off when they are full.
Automated Appliance Restock: would function as a storage and supply center integrated to home automated cooking systems (food processors), fabber systems, and similar appliances that have been integrated to home PPT terminals to allow them to automatically restock their cartridge-based reserves using a subscription service or a colony-wide resource credit system. A similar system could also be employed for the supply of service materials and parts to colony maintenance robots traveling within the PRT system. Would also provide a solution for second/third generation nanofoundry systems that must manage very large assortments of feedstock cartridges. (it is conceivable that some of these systems may fill large rooms whole with racks of different feedstock in liquid carton cartridges akin to Parmelot milk boxes) This is an extension of the similar capability offered by the Virtual Warehouse for just-in-time and on-demand industrial production uses.
Automated Drug and Medical Supply: proper patient use of the drugs prescribed to them is a big problem today. Many drugs are quite hazardous if misused and toxic to the environment when discarded and often a great deal of them goes to waste because a physician has supplied a patient with more than they need or their packaging simply precludes more controlled quantities. Integrated to personal assistant software, the SuperStore could provide a per-dose on-demand supply of drugs, simultaneously providing a patient with a reminder to take their prescriptions at the appropriate times. Since colony personal assistant software may be aware enough to track a person’s location in the colony, they need not even worry if they have forgotten their prescriptions and are away from home. The system could deliver their medicine in minutes to wherever they may be in the colony at the time.
With a PPT system fully deployed, residents of Aquarius or other arcology-like settlements would enjoy an unparalleled level of personal convenience matched to an unparalleled degree of material efficiency. Relying entirely on the Internet and tangible samples for marketing, the vast amounts of waste common to goods distribution today would be completely eliminated. What could not be delivered as-is in these simple containers could be packaged in simple reusable or recyclable containers of glass, metal, or polyethylene, all completely free of wasteful labels, packaging, and wrapping. It’s a good example of how, today, we stupidly put up with greater inconvenience and cost for the sake of more waste just to suit foolish Industrial Age paradigms. Also, such technology would give the inhabitants of Aquarius and their computer systems a great awareness of the resource utilization in the colony than is possible in any other community on Earth. This could lead to radical new strategies for community resource efficiency.
- Solar Ferry
- Solar Wingsail Cruiser
- Relay Archipelago
- Aquarian Airship
- Aquarian Personal Rapid Transit System
- Aquarian SE Downstation
- Circum-Equatorial Transit Network