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How ants avoid traffic jam

November 27, 2008

Its almost the end of school-term so today I thought it will be smooth sailing all the way to work. I was wrong, in fact it was worse than ‘normal’ school days. Traffic jam. At one stage I was stuck for 20 minutes.

Ahead of me were cars, 4-wheel drive, a few trucks and one big cement truck. The road was Jalan Tutong leading to Bunut. I know, traffic-prone area but this is now my route since moving to my new house.

As there was no sign of moving, I became impatient, as I know I will be late for work. When I saw a U-turn, I maneuvered to the empty lane leading to the U-turn only to be followed by several cars.

I just knew I have to turn around and use the Jangsak road. I know there would be traffic there as I know the area well.  I was right. Still traffic jam but at least the vehicles were moving.

Marching ants from

Marching ants from

Long and winding was the Jangsak road. Looking at the vehicles ahead, the scene reminded me of the ants. Ants always march in roww on their pheromone trail. Ants move slowly when they are on the look for food.  They will only move fast when they are found food, are disturbed, or when they move to a new colony; or look for someone or something to bite who disturbed them in the first place. Ouch!

Interestingly, there was an article in the paper today saying that a group of German scientists are working out how ants avoid traffic congestion and said that we, humans can learn from the ants.

Researchers believe that the insect is better at managing congestion than humans, helping each other move around their colony much more efficiently. 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.

Diversion (or road block) ahead

Diversion (or road block) ahead

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.

I am sure this plan will be handy, passing information to oncoming cars that there’s traffic jam ahead so drivers have ample time to turn back or use other route. This is not new actually as I know this tactic has always been used to warn a road-block ahead. Hehe.

Boy, I look forward to the holiday when the road will almost be empty but then I will also be on holiday…

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