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Medicine The Internet

Pneumatic Tube Communication In Hospitals 350

blee37 sends along a writeup from the School of Medicine at Stanford University on their pneumatic tube delivery system, used for sending atoms not bits. Such systems are in use in hospitals nationwide; the 19th-century technology is enhancd by recent refinements in pneumatic braking. "Every day, 7,000 times a day, Stanford Hospital staff turn to pneumatic tubes, cutting-edge technology in the 19th century, for a transport network that the Internet and all the latest Silicon Valley wizardry can't match: A tubular system to transport a lab sample across the medical center in the blink of an eye."
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Pneumatic Tube Communication In Hospitals

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  • Ding Ding (Score:3, Interesting)

    by TubeSteak ( 669689 ) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @05:42PM (#30717296) Journal

    To help alert employees to the arrival of containers, the system has more than three dozen different combinations of chiming tones.

    I wonder which engineer thought that would be a good idea.

  • by Max Romantschuk ( 132276 ) <> on Sunday January 10, 2010 @05:52PM (#30717406) Homepage

    When the register has too much cash or needs change they just tube it over. There's also at least one pharmacy which has people processing prescriptions at terminals, and storage below from where the drugs are tubed over. If it works, don't fix it I say.

    Oh, and here = Helsinki, Finland.

  • by 91degrees ( 207121 ) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @05:54PM (#30717440) Journal
    For that matter, how much information can you send if you load up a 16-Gb USB drive (or a few) and send them off in a tube?

    You have a last mile (or last metre) problem there though. Getting the data through the tube will take seconds. Minutes at most. 16GB through USB2 will take a few minutes even if you actually do get the maximum theoretical throughput.
  • by FooAtWFU ( 699187 ) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @06:02PM (#30717506) Homepage
    Oh, and Roosevelt Island (in the river between Manhattan and Queens) has pneumatic garbage collection. It's the only place in the US besides Disneyworld to do that. Apparently it works somewhat-not-unlike a packet-switched network, periodically connecting garbage and recycling loads from different places to the appropriate suction via the same set of tubes.
  • by zlogic ( 892404 ) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @06:04PM (#30717524)

    But what if someone hacks the system, do something like a man-in-the-middle attack and starts intercepting money transactions?

  • by MichaelSmith ( 789609 ) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @06:15PM (#30717620) Homepage Journal

    Yeah they use them here in Melbourne, Australia. Makes be wonder if you could knock one up with bits from the hardware store. The pipes are easy 90mm stormwater and 100mm sewage are both available. If we go with the cheap 90mm pipe then 70mm pipe could be used for a capsule. Sealing the outside and making it reliable might be a problem. You could experiment with O rings (not for use in cold weather!) with manual lubrication using sump oil.

    You would need a low pressure electric pump. Should be a few available off the shelf. Maybe I could rework my front letterbox. Saves one trip out of the house every day.

  • by AndyGasman ( 695277 ) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @06:27PM (#30717706) Homepage Journal
    They are pretty common in the UK, in all sort of industries.

    Tesco supermarket uses them in some stores for moving cash to tills, and they are widely used in Hospitals.

    There is one great, if slightly lengthy story that a friend tells, from when she was working in a hospital in Western Scotland a few years ago, I'll try to recount it best as I can.

    A patient who has Hepatitis and Epilepsy is admitted to the hospital, he had a fit, and his Dog bit his ear off while he was fitting. So he came to hospital with his ear in his pocket. He was treated in A&E (UK ER) and sent up to the surgical department. His Ear though was wrapped up and put in a tube, however before the doctor could tap in the destination, the pod whizzed off. The hepatitis positive ear was not found for several days (is this just a bit error rate?), as it was quiet a big hospital with a lot of tubes. It could have been worse, as the ear was not intended to be sown back on, but just photographed and incinerated. The doctor who put the ear in the pod was known as Stupid Dave before the incident, but I'm sure this didn't help him shake of the moniker. The worst thing is, most people just ask what happened to the dog.

    You don't get that with TCP/IP
  • by iamagloworm ( 816661 ) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @06:36PM (#30717786)
    in australia coles and woolworths as well as target and big w, etc. all use pneumatic tubs for cash.
  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @06:37PM (#30717798) Journal
    Talk to these guys [].

    You may find the density a little lacking; but I suspect that they don't even notice EMP.

    More broadly, a lot of the early analog computers were hydraulic(presumably this was easier than pneumatic, since water is more or less incompressible under standard conditions); but there would be nothing stopping the suitably enthusiastic individual from building pneumatic analog computers. Or, for that matter, digital ones. The cool kids in microfluidics have done some poking at the idea. pneumatic logic gates [].
  • by EdIII ( 1114411 ) * on Sunday January 10, 2010 @07:12PM (#30718100)

    The funny thing to me is why people make fun of him at all. He is not an IT guy. In layman's terms a series of tubes is actually appropriate.

    You can look at a CAT5 cable and a fiber optic cable as being a tube, and information being droplets of water. All of the fiber running across the world is essentially a series of tubes and used to transport these droplets of information from one place to another.

    It is a little more complex than that of course. We have routers and switches which inspect those droplets of information and route them through other tubes, modify them, or just discard them which occurs at layers 2 and 3.

    I don't think it is unreasonable or stupid to liken layer 1 infrastructure to a series of tubes. It's a pretty easy abstraction to construct if you don't have an in-depth understanding of the technology.

  • by b4upoo ( 166390 ) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @07:23PM (#30718226)

    Place a stack of DVDs in a pneumatic device and you can pump data faster than on any type of existing system of delivery.

  • Anonymous Coward (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 10, 2010 @07:47PM (#30718402)

    I used such tubes all day, every day, for several years, doing Neutron Activation Analysis. The samples were loaded three per tube, known as rabbits. They went into the slot, closed and blew down the outside wall of the building, underground, and then up into the core of our TRIGA reactor. There they got neutrons of various energies for anywhere from 0.05 to 2-3 seconds, and then they blasted back to me. Behind the shields I removed the samples and placed them at the gamma detectors--moving very fast. Counting gammas took anywhere from seconds to days, depending upon type and elements.

    We proved the existence of the Northern Hemisphere ozone depletion with 800 samples, and several of my graduates got PhDs. Another project showed trade routes extant through northern Italy at the construction of the Colliseum.

    Once in a while a rabbit would get stuck. A particularly hot one did, right at the corner of my lab. We timed that test so no one else was in the building, and it got so hot it wouldn't come back past the tube joint. If I hadn't known just where the 36" wrench was, the building could have been badly contaminated, and would've shut down, as in national news. I got it out without too much exposure, and was offered the job as building manager later.

    Another time a sample exploded while removing it from a rabbit, showering my nose with hot dust. I still get stray hairs growing there...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 10, 2010 @07:51PM (#30718430)

    Nearly all the department stores did that back in the 1950's/1960's . There were no electronic cash registers, and checkout staff weren't allowed to handle money. So the customer would place their payment along with a receipt signed by the checkout clerk into a capsule. This would be sent upstairs to be processed by an accountant who would send the change back down to the checkout clerk.

    Costco stores, at least here in the SF bay area, have been using tubes to move money around for years. The only difference is that they now use PVC tubes, instead of the metal ones I remember from the 40s and 50s.

    I don't recall how they were used back then as I was too young.

    When I worked for a major railroad in the 60s, they had an elaborate tube system which went to a hub in the mail department. There was a long, carpet-lined trough that all the tubes dumped into. There was a collar on the canister that was rotated to show the destination floor. A clerk would pick up the incoming canister, look at the indicated floor marking, then pop it into the outgoing tube for the destination floor.

    Eventually this was replaced by a system in an an abandoned elevator shaft. There was a moving chain going up the shaft, over the top, then down again in a continuous loop. You put building mail into a bin destined for the mail room and pushed it out on rails to be picked up by grabbers on the chain. The bin was dumped into the mail room. After sorting, mail for different floors was put into bins with a floor indicator set on it and sent back onto the chain. Eventually it was kicked off the chain onto a ramp at the designated floor.

  • by canajin56 ( 660655 ) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @08:10PM (#30718576)
    The Costco in my hometown uses pneumatic tubes to deliver money to the back room, from the registers. When there's too much cash in the drawer, you take the excess, stick it in a canister, it shoots off to be counted and put in the safe. I think if somebody breaks a large bill and you're low on change, the back room could also shoot you a canister of small bills to stock up with, but I've never seen that happen.
  • by MichaelSmith ( 789609 ) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @09:33PM (#30719040) Homepage Journal

    Hmmm maybe you could send spherical packages down the tube (literally, balls) and use normal pipe junctions. Then you could control air movement for routing. I can't think of a good application with such inconvenient shapes but how about a fast food joint....
    Order at your table with a cheap touch screen. Shove cash into a ball, your change comes back the same way, or pay by CC though the UI. Everything on the menu fits into a ball. Used balls go back through a dedicated garbage tube which goes straight to a cleaning machine. There is no other packaging.

  • by Sporkinum ( 655143 ) on Monday January 11, 2010 @12:19AM (#30719818)

    That is not unlike what I remember as a kid at a local department store. They didn't have cash registers, they had a table/desk with a tube endpoint on it. The clerk would take your check/money and a hand written bill and put it in the tube pod. It would shoot up to the 5 floor where the ladies handled the cash. After a short wait, a tube pod would come down with your receipt and any change you were due. It fascinated me and was always a treat to go there. It was also a treat because they had an elevator with dual doors and a guy that ran it.

    Now get off my lawn!

  • by yamfry ( 1533879 ) on Monday January 11, 2010 @01:23AM (#30720108)
    I worked at a hospital with a pretty complicated series of tubes. Even after using it hundreds of times, I still thought it was totally sweet.
    Yes, tubes DO get clogged, and pretty regularly. We fixed it by calling maintenance and saying "tube's down". I think they reversed the polarity or something. If something was extra-stuck it could be down for an hour or so, so they probably have access points or something if reversing didn't work.
    If you use a damaged capsule it can end up clogging the tube, so it's not a good idea. Capsules will get stuck if it's not closed all the way (you try to squeeze stuff too much stuff into it). If you put something in wrapped in a plastic bag (always a good idea with IV bags and things that can break) and a bit of the bag is sticking out it can clog the tubes, too.
    You don't generally put in things that can break easily -- you wouldn't generally send glass bottles, but vials are okay if you throw some padding around them. They don't stop gently, it's a pretty good thud even with whatever braking they use so you make sure the contents will survive impact before you send it. Usually you'll double-bag for biologic and chemo products. If a capsule gets contaminated with bio or chemo there are cleaning procedures. Generally it's just the capsule that gets contaminated. There are probably procedures for shutting down and cleaning the tube system after contamination. It was one of those things that you always think could happen and how much it would suck, but it didn't happen when I worked there.
    If a critical sample gets stuck or destroyed, then tough cookies. There will always be noob mistakes.
    True story: the tube system we used had a function to send tubes out if you had an excess of empty tubes. You push a code and it takes it -somewhere-. Then if you need a tube, you push a code and it sends you an empty one. I don't know how that works, but I always imagined that it involved monkeys.

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