Mike Stevens | Feb 10, 2009

Except for those times you’ve noticed them coming in your kitchen window and heading straight to your pantry, you've probably never given the humble ant much consideration. However, researchers at the University of Sydney have decided to take a closer look at just that kind of behaviour to learn how the little guys avoid traffic jams.

Entomologist Audrey Dussutour has been studying leaf cutter ants to see if their behaviour could assist in developing driverless cars controlled by ant algorithms.

"We should use their rules," says Dussutour. "I’ve been working with ants for eight years and have never seen a traffic jam, and I’ve tried."

Ant trafficThe study has shown the leaf cutter ants arrange themselves into highly organised streams of loaded and unloaded ants, in much the same way as a multi-lane highway operates. The study also shows that the little critters avoid time consuming bottle-necks on ‘single lane’ branches by being patient.

Faster moving, un-laden ants will queue patiently behind slower moving, loaded individuals instead of rushing to overtake and disrupting the flow of traffic. An individual ant crossing a three-metre span can reduce the time it takes to get from end to end from 64 to 32 seconds by adhering to this principle.

It is hoped the same theory can be used in inter-vehicle communications systems with the eventual goal of developing technologies which utilize the ant algorithms in combination with satellite navigation and road-based sensors for use in ‘driverless’ control systems.

So next time you come across a parade of ants streaming across your kitchen in search of cake don’t reach for the Mortein. Spend a minute and see if the little guys can’t teach you a thing or two about being a better driver.

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