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Who Needs Drones? The Future of Delivery is Underground

Mole Solutions’ subterranean transport system begins its first pilot program

Image Courtesy of Mole Solutions

After issuing a new set of proposed rules for domestic drones in mid-February, the FAA recently granted Amazon permission to start testing their fleet of delivery drones. While some picture a near future where our skies will fill with buzzing fulfillment copters, dropping books and iPads from the heavens like so much manna, a U.K. company is bringing next-generation delivery back down to earth—or rather, beneath it. Mole Solutions’ innovative concept for transporting goods involves sending capsules full of freight through a series of underground tubes. The capsules would run on an electric track, propelled by magnetic fields like maglev trains. If successful, the idea could cut costs in a number of ways, but, most notably, the system would bypass (and maybe even help clear up) the U.K.’s stupefying traffic problem—in London alone, congestion is thought to cost the economy more than eight billion dollars every year.

“Clean water is taken into homes and dirty water is taken away and we never really see it, while huge amounts of oil and diesel are transported by pipes underground,” Mole Solutions’ Roger Miles told the Independent. “Now we want to do something similar with freight, delivering goods to buildings and taking away waste.”

The system could utilize existing infrastructure—many cities are already honeycombed with crisscrossing tubes and tunnels for public transportation, utilities, and information networks—and theoretically run around the clock with very little manpower. The BBC reports that Mole is heading into a nine-month pilot project in Northampton, England, and is working with the local government and the country’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has provided some funding for the venture.

Stuart Prosser, Mole’s technical director, told the BBC, “They have some issues [in Northampton] with air pollution and distribution of goods and they want to see if there's other ways of doing it, rather than just using the traditional ways…”

If Mole can burrow its way into the hearts of Northamptonians, the company is hoping to use the pilot experience to get projects started elsewhere in the U.K., and eventually internationally. According to the Financial Times, Mole is a part of the U.K. government’s Transport Systems Catapult, a program for supporting local startups with radical new transportation concepts. Mole has also garnered interest from the private sector, in companies like logistics giant DHL, and Laing O’Rourke, the U.K.’s largest private construction firm.

A miniature magnetic subway for stuff might not capture the popular imagination like Amazon’s horde of drones—flying, whirling things tap into a common sci-fi vision of the future that slips the surly bonds of earth and takes humanity continuously upward into the skies. But sometimes, when everyone else is looking up, you have to look down to find opportunity. And given the number of logistical challenges we still face in flying packages through crowded urban airspace, Mole’s subterranean transportation system might very well be the practical, if less exciting, solution we need.

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