What The Inside Of A Pneumatic Transport System Looks Like

While most of us are familiar with pneumatic transport systems by their use at drive-up bank windows, these systems are also commonly found in hospitals ferrying samples around. When [Aidan] was in the hospital, he asked how this series of tubes routed samples from many different floors to the lab and back again. Well, give him an old tube to play around with and he’ll eventually come up with a way to record the inside of one of these pneumatic tubes, giving some insight into how this system actually works.

When asked, a tech that uses this system on a daily basis described it as a very basic physical Ethernet that sucks and blows through rotary junctions and physical hubs to route packets to different areas of the building. [Aidan] wanted to record a tube’s travels, so he wired up a small HD camera, a bunch of LEDs, and a few batteries. Sending this recording sample container revealed some of how this pneumatic system works; the containers will travel forward and stop before reversing through one of the rotary switches. You can check out the flight of the container in the video below.

Of course there are other glimpses of how stuff travels through the unseen world of getting from point A to point B. Here’s a time lapse camera going on a trip via DHL just for kicks.


52 thoughts on “What The Inside Of A Pneumatic Transport System Looks Like

    1. Well the article talks about this being in a hospital, which makes more sense since they will route things between different floors, labs, pharmacies, etc. Usually banks won’t ever use switches since it’s just Point A to B (drive-through to teller).

    2. It was an older tube provided by a technician for the project. It’s going back once the entire project is finished, the modified end cap will be replaced with a new one and the pod will be back in rotation again.

  1. I haven’t even watched the video and I’m already awestruck. This is such a simple, commonplace thing, looked at from a totally new angle. Whether it qualifies as a “hack” in the traditional sense or not, it absolutely causes people to think differently about an everyday object, and that alone makes it more attention-worthy than the average bear.

    More like this, Hackaday! More like this, submitters! Make us think.

    (Addendum: Watched the video. Reminds me of an endoscopy, but way less gross. So cool.)

  2. When I was young I was fascinated with these, and remember wondering if they could transport other items. In particular, a cat. It’s about the right size, pliant, and the fur might provide for a good seal. Plus it was fun imagining the chaos that might ensue when the bank teller unexpectedly receives a panicked cat.

    Not that I did it, or ever would, as it wouldn’t be much fun for the cat. But now at least I know what the cat would see. Enjoyed it.

    1. When i was younger i worked at a local cinema, it had the same shuttle system to send floats and cash, to the cashiers office. The one we had was pretty powerfull, you could put bottles of drink/pop in them and it’d have no problems delivering it. They had one at the cafe/bar in the cinema and if it was too busy to have someone take food over to the office you could seal things like a hotdog (minus the sauce!) and chips as long as they were sealed in a ziplock bag through too.

      And as someone else once showed me you could also break wind near a pipe and it’d be more than happy to deliver to said target too.

    1. Yep pretty much. Except imagine it’s about 38c and really ‘moist’ and you’ve pretty much nailed it. In the winter it’s a welcome friend, in the summer it is your worst enemy.

    1. From the article’s comments:

      August 9, 2013 at 6:27 pm
      It’s a Replay XD.

      The video quality is OK, but I prefer the GoPro. GP was no good for this though because the offset design prevented the lens from being centred on the rotational axis.

  3. Some department stores used to use these instead of cash registers. The customer’s cash and bill would be tubed to a central office, and the change would come back.

    I’ve ever only seen one system in operation in an old store on the western tip of Montreal island, and that was over 35 years ago.

    1. Plenty of banks still use it, it’s a clever security setup since you can not only be far away from the money but potential robbers don’t know where the tube goes to exactly.
      But of course people do visit banks very rarely these days with the ATM’s and electronic payments and all, so many are not familiar I expect.

    2. Lots of larger stores (supermarkets, department stores, some others) around here use systems like this to move money from the individual checkout stations to a central point (either some sort of lock-box/safe somewhere near the customer service desk or in some cases the tubes disappear into the back presumably into some sort of cash office)

  4. Am I the only person a little concerned about what appeared to be dried blood spatter on the tube walls near the end of the video? That might explain the reasoning behind my hospital switching from a series of tubes to inter-floor couriers.
    How often are the tubes sanitized?

    1. To me, it appeared that the capsule ended at a different location than its original departure. It didn’t just go from point A, to a center point, back to A.

      From this I surmised that when the capsule appears to come to rest mid-tube, it’s actually being mechanically routed by being in the center of what amounts to a pipe mounted on an axis, let’s call it the “routing” pipe. The routing pipe turns to the correct exit point, then the capsule continues not forward in the pipe, but back out of the routing pipe, into whatever exit point was selected.

      I don’t know if I’m correct, but I’m curious to hear from any engineers who have actually worked on a system like this.

    1. No, they did say “sucks and blows” in the description.

      The hospital where my Dad worked when I was a kid had a system like this. There were stories of tube jams occurring which could clog the pneumatics. In my later years I thought of this when watching the film “Brazil”…

  5. I recently saw a system much like this at a store, except it used rectangular pipes and delivered cigarette packets to the checkout counters. They did that because cigarette theft is getting ridiculously common.

    1. Interesting, you’d think a squarish shape would clog, but I guess if it’s not making corners it’s workable, and maybe if the inside is a material that is of the right substance to reduce friction.

      1. it has to be the right kind of corners. you can’t make complex corners and you can’t ‘twist’ – but take a bit of poster paper and a corkboard and a few pencils, you’ll see how you can make a corner take a rectangle while keeping a seal

  6. There was a longer article on these systems in a Swedish computer journal (by Jörgen Städje, the one who wrote about exploding CD-ROMs). Most of the article was about the system used in the Swedish government offices.

    He mentioned an anecdote where a McDonald’s apple pie was sent a Friday afternoon and unintentionally was stuck at the switch hub till it was delivered the following Monday in a somewhat less appetizing condition. :-P

    Link to article (Google translated): http://translate.google.com/translate?sl=sv&tl=en&js=n&prev=_t&hl=sv&ie=UTF-8&u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.idg.se%2F2.1085%2F1.138122

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