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Ants could inspire military strategies

Nov. 9, 2009
Courtesy University of Granada
and World Science staff

A re­search­er has de­signed a sys­tem that uses ant colonies’ be­hav­ior to help plan troop move­ments on bat­tle­fields.

The Span­ish ar­my is look­ing in­to us­ing some fea­tures of the sys­tem, ac­cord­ing to the Un­ivers­ity of Gra­na­da sci­en­tists in­volved in the proj­ect.

Ants are not­ed for their abil­ity to find the short­est path from their nest to a food source. 

Univers­ity of Gra­na­da re­search­er Mo­ra Gar­cía de­vel­oped for­mu­las for choos­ing the best route path for troops with­in par­tic­u­lar en­vi­ron­ments, max­i­miz­ing speed of move­ment while min­i­miz­ing ca­su­al­ties. The main pro­ce­dure in­volved is called the “ant col­o­ny op­tim­iz­a­tion al­go­rith­m,” a prob­a­bilis­tic tech­nique in­spired by the be­hav­iors of ant groups in seek­ing out food.

Ants on such a mission tend to wan­der ran­domly at first, lay­ing down a chem­i­cal trail as they walk. When an ant finds food, its path be­comes cov­ered with the chem­i­cals, called pher­o­mones. But this chem­i­cal trail evap­o­rates grad­u­al­ly. There­fore, shorter paths be­tween the col­o­ny and a food source are as­so­ci­at­ed with stronger trails, since they have had less time to evap­o­rate. 

This phe­nom­e­non helps ants that join the search lat­er to lo­cate the best avail­a­ble paths. The group as a whole then con­verges by de­grees on the most ef­fi­cient so­lu­tion.

A range of stud­ies have fo­cused on de­vel­op­ing com­put­er sim­ula­t­ions of this sort of ant problem-solving pro­cess. 

The Un­ivers­ity of Gra­na­da work pro­duced a mini-sim­ulator soft­ware that al­so takes in­to ac­count new fac­tors such as the en­e­my pres­ence, the sci­en­tists in­volved said. The soft­ware de­fines bat­tle­field set­tings, lo­cates the troops un­it and en­e­mies, ex­e­cutes the for­mu­las and an­a­lyzes the re­sults. The idea is that troops could fol­low a com­put­er-provided so­lu­tion with­out hav­ing to first go through the “ran­dom walk” stage.

Gar­cía started the re­search us­ing play bat­tle­fields from the videogame “Panzer Gen­er­al,” then mod­i­fied them to make them more real­istic.

The proj­ect al­so had the par­ticipa­t­ion of mem­bers of the Span­ish Army’s Doc­trine and Train­ing Com­mand. The sci­en­tists say the sim­ulator could al­so be use­ful to solve oth­er prob­lems, such as find­ing the most ef­fi­cient path for a sales agent to vis­it clients, or for dis­trib­uting goods.


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A researcher has designed a system that uses ant colonies’ behavior to help plan troop movements on battlefields. The Spanish army is looking into using some features of the system, according to of University of Granada scientists involved in the project. Ants are noted for their ability to find the shortest path from their nest to a food source. University of Granada researcher Mora García developed formulas for choosing the best route path for troops within particular environments, maximizing speed of movement while minimizing casualties. The main procedure involved is called the “ant colony optimization algorithm,” a probabilistic technique inspired by the behaviors of ant groups in seeking out food. Ants searching for food tend to wander randomly at first, laying down a chemical trail as they walk. Paths between the colony and a food source then become covered with the chemical, called a pheromone. But this chemical trail evaporates gradually. Therefore, shorter paths between the colony and a food source are associated with stronger trails, since they have had less time to evaporate as the ant moves over them. This phenomenon helps ants that join the search later to locate the best available paths. The group as a whole then converges by degrees on the most efficient solution. A range of studies have focused on developing computer simulations of this sort of ant problem-solving process. The University of Granada work produced a mini-simulator software that also takes into account new factors such as the enemy presence, the scientists involved said. The software defines battlefield settings, locates the troops unit and enemies, executes the formulas and analyzes the results. The idea is that troops could follow a computer-provided solution without having to first go through the “random walk” stage. García started the research using play battlefields from the videogame “Panzer General,” and modified them to make them more faithful to reality. The project also had the participation of members of the Spanish Army’s Doctrine and Training Command. The scientists say the simulator could also be useful to solve other problems, such as the finding the most efficient path for a sales agent to visit clients, or to distribute goods.