For its latest issue, Wired Magazine asked several experts to tell us how the convergence between technology and biology was transforming their respective fields, from transportation to art, and even redefining life as we know it. In this special report, "Living Machines," you'll discover that the nonliving world is very much alive. Here I want to focus on one of the seven articles, which talks about ant algorithms and swarmbots and was written by Marco Dorigo from the Free University of Brussels.
Ants are simple creatures, yet they can perform complicated tasks. They create highways leading to food, organize the distribution of larvae in the anthill, form cemeteries by clustering dead ants, build living bridges to cross gaps in their way, and assign tasks as needed without any centralized control. Thus, ants provide an excellent model for programming simple devices to achieve complex results.
Boil down ant behavior and what do you get? A new set of business tools known as ant algorithms: basic behaviors that can be programmed into a large number of independent software agents to solve human problems.
And indeed, ant algorithms are used today, especially in distribution and logistics.
Unilever uses them to allocate storage tanks, chemical mixers, and packaging facilities. Southwest Airlines uses them to optimize its cargo operations. Numerous consulting houses, such as the Swiss firm AntOptima, have embraced them as an indispensable tool.
But ant algorithms are also used to control a class of robots named swarmbots.
[Note: For more information, you also can read a previous story, "What Are Swarm-Bots?"]
Typically, a swarm bot is a collection of simple robots (s-bots) that self-organize according to algorithms inspired by the bridge-building and task-allocation activities of ants. For example, if an s-bot encounters an object too heavy to carry on its own, other s-bots will grasp either the object or other s-bots until they get it under control. Two or more can link up to cross a gap that exceeds a single s-bot's stride. As an ad hoc accretion of simple units, a swarm bot's form depends on its surroundings and the job it's doing. Such devices might prove helpful in activities like search-and-rescue and planetary exploration.
Please note that the other articles of this special report are all worth reading.
Source: Wired Magazine, Issue 12.02, February 2004