Ants can teach us how to beat city congestion, claim scientists

Motorists can learn a thing or two about dodging traffic jams from the humble ant, claim scientists.

Researchers believe that the insect is better at managing congestion than humans, helping each other move around their colony much more efficiently.
Motorway traffic - the study used 'ant motorways' to study their reaction to congestion
Motorway traffic - the study used 'ant motorways' to study their reaction to congestion

That is why you never see the tiny creatures backed up and idling along a scent trail as they busily go about their chores in an organised and directed way.

Ants are the most numerous type of animal on Earth with brains that contain about 250,000 cells - the largest among insects.

Now collective intelligence expert Dr Dirk Helbing says understanding more about ants could help solve one of the banes of modern life - road congestion.

His team set up an "ant motorway" with two routes of different widths from the nest to some sugar syrup. Soon the narrower route soon became congested.

But when an ant returning along the congested route to the nest collided with another ant just starting out, the returning ant pushed the newcomer onto the other path.

However, if the returning ant had enjoyed a trouble-free journey it did not redirect the newcomer.

The result was that just before the shortest route became clogged the ants were diverted to another route and traffic jams never formed.

The researchers also created a computer model of more complex ant networks with routes of different lengths.

The team found that even though ants being rerouted sometimes took a longer route, they still got to the food quickly and efficiently.

Dr Helbing, of the Dresden University of Technology in Germany, who reported the research in New Scientist, said the efficient distribution of limited resources by decentralised, individual decisions is still an open problem in many networked systems.

He said: "This is one of the most challenging problems in road traffic and routing of data on the internet."

He said that while you cannot allow cars to collide with vehicles coming in the opposite direction as a form of traffic control, you could do the next best thing and allow them to communicate.

His plan is to force cars travelling in one direction to tell oncoming vehicles what traffic conditions they are about to encounter - so they can take evasive action if necessary. [via telegraph]

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