Hungry ants inspire self-guided vehicle

Researchers in the Canary Islands have reported in the IET research journal Electronics Letters how they used a technique based on the way ants find the shortest route between home and a source of food to create a self-steering car.

The Verdino, which has been designed by a team of engineers from the University of La Laguna uses an effect known as ‘ant colony optimisation’, or ACO, to sense the road surface in front of it.

In nature, every ant travelling between an ant hill and a source of food leaves a trail of pheromones that can be followed by other members of their colony. As the chemicals evaporate, the path taken by those making the shortest journey becomes the most deeply reinforced and in turn is the one chosen by other ants.

Algorithms derived from this effect can help to resolve problems of combinatory optimisation in self-guided vehicles, explains Rafael Arnay from ULL’s, Department of Systems and Automatic Engineering and Computer Architecture and Technology.

“The ACO technique is based, similarly, on a colony of artificial ants, in other words computational agents that work cooperatively and communicate with each other by means of artificial pheromone trails,” he said.

Arnay’s team have built a prototype that resembles a golf buggy, and is equipped with control system that processes data from an on-board camera. This is being tested for possible use as an internal transport system to link 25 housing units and a visitor centre in a bioclimatic housing development being built by the Technological and Renewable Energy Institute in the south of Tenerife.

Initial results are said to be “very promising”, and show that Verdino can negotiate unstructured roads without lines painted on the surface, or with irregular edges caused by encroachment by soil or vegetation.

The researchers believe a commercial version of the system could find uses in vehicles for town centres, tourist complexes, sporting venues, shopping centres and industrial estates, and could even be used within remote security systems or in adapted cars for elderly or disabled people.

‘Ant colony optimisation algorithm for detection and tracking of non-structured roads’ is published in the 5 June 2008 issue of Electronics Letters (Vol 44, No 12).

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