Building Better Shipping Networks With Ants

Scientists model the movement of ants to streamline the handling of shipping containers at international ports.

By Mary Hoff|Thursday, August 28, 2014
Volker Möhrke/Corbis

If you’ve ever watched ants work cookie crumbs across a kitchen floor, you know they’re all business. Now scientists have modeled this extremely efficient foraging to optimize the handling of shipping containers at international ports.

When worker ants find a food source, they systematically carry bits back to the nest, leaving a scented trail for other ants to trace to the booty. The scent wears off over time, indicating the distance to the food and how many ants have already accessed it. 

Civil engineers Omor Sharif and Nathan Huynh, both from the University of South Carolina, developed a computer model that adapts this behavior so it could be used at international ports. Here, import containers move from waterside docks to one of many storage sites, and eventually to truck gates for distribution, while export containers make the same moves in the opposite direction.

The model employs virtual ants to deposit digital scents, modeling storage site congestion. That, in turn, relays information about potential tie-ups to actual shipping container movers. The model continually adjusts the containers’ storage assignments to minimize delays and shorten trips. 

Next, Huynh plans to tap ants’ route-choosing talents to optimize other aspects of shipyard operation so computerized container-handling can be as sweet for shipyard owners as cookie crumbs are for the ants that inspire it. 

[This article originally appeared in print as "Cargo Ants."]

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