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Learning from ants during a disaster

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Learning from ants during a disaster

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Ants are rightly lauded as a rather remarkable species.  The fantastic work of thinkers such as EO Wilson has helped to shed light on the fascinating way they go about their business.  As areas of thought such as complexity science have begun to extend their reach into more diverse fields, so too have lessons been transferred over the behaviour of ants into these fields.

There are several books for instance extolling the lessons we can learn from the ant world in our leadership behaviours.  HBR were trumpeting the cross over benefits all the way back in 2010 for instance, highlighting several ways that ants would approach operations that could be deployed in the workplace.

Far be it from me to undersell the importance of leadership, a study published recently in Japan suggests that there are ant related lessons in altogether more serious fields too.  The researchers constructed several successful simulations whereby navigational maps were created to help people reach safety during a disaster situation.

Following any serious disaster, natural or otherwise, it’s crucial that those affected can get hold of accurate information as quickly as possible, even as the situation is unfolding.  Such rapid response is often a matter of life and death, as successful access to safe areas can often be blocked by numerous problems.

The system developed by the researchers is modeled on how ant colonies behave, and contains two key features.  The first of these utilizes smart phones to create a network of sensors that can feed back information to emergency centres.  This then underpins the second feature, which taps into our knowledge of ant behaviour to determine the best way to navigate using the aforementioned information.

The signals and data from the mobile network act as a form of pheromone trail, allowing emergency workers to see successful and unsuccessful attempts to navigate to safe places, thus allowing them to locate the optimum route using GPS.

This provides an innovative response to the many challenges that befall emergency workers during a disaster, including of course the lack of information that is often critical to an adequate response.  The hope of researchers is that mobile networks would remain live for long enough to give response teams enough time to gain a good picture of the scenario as it unfolds.

The next step will be to develop an ad hoc mobile networking system so that evacuees can themselves access these active maps rather than the present system that provides advice to emergency services for guiding evacuees. Such a network might also circumvent the problem of service provider outages by allowing individual smart phones to create a local network.

It’s a good example of how innovation can often cross from one field to another and provide creative solutions to very serious problems.

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