Biomimicry: Swarm Intelligence

In a 1987 paper, Craig Reynolds wrote about an algorithm he had produced that modeled the flocking behavior of birds. He found that by imputing three simple rules for his digital individuals to follow, flock behavior could be simulated. The three rules are as follows:

One: Collision Avoidance: avoid collisions with nearby flockmates
Two: Velocity Matching: attempt to match velocity with nearby flockmates
Three: Flock Centering: attempt to stay close to nearby flockmates

There is something to be learned from this system of swarm intelligence. As human population density increases, the number of vehicles on the roads increases, which subsequently increases the chances of collision. In the United States alone there are more than six million accidents each year. Yet every day flocks of birds, schools of fish, and swarms of insects travel in close proximity without colliding.

The latest and greatest of swarm intelligence biomimicry comes out of Japan. A car manufacturer’s little robots have been programmed to avoid colliding with each other and their inanimate surroundings. Each robot is programmed with a school-of-fish algorithm and a different personality to simulate individual drivers.The same three rules apply: avoid collisions, match velocity, and attempt to stay close to neighbors. By looking to swarm intelligence as inspiration, mathematicians have programed algorithms that could be used in future transportation systems. It might require surrendering some driving freedom to the decision-making algorithm, but considering the amount of automobile accidents and associated stop-and-go traffic, it is a small price to pay.

Swarm intelligence also makes a great case for conservation. The San Diego Zoo houses lovable giant pandas and playful polar bears, but we also have a great space dedicated to the minifauna of the world. The Insect House may not be as big of a crowd draw as Elephant Odyssey, but it certainly houses animals that are just as important. If swarm intelligence is to be further studied, we need to make sure swarming animals, such as locusts, are preserved. Saving these little invertebrates could save human lives.

Dena Emmerson is a biomimicry research assistant at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Vision for A Sustainable Decade.

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