From ants to airlines: Applying swarm intelligence

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This article in National Geographic explains how Southwest Airlines used "swarm behavior" (like how ants, which individually aren't too bright, can as a collective make some intelligent decisions) to figure out the best way to move planes in and out effectively. From the article:


    Southwest Airlines has tested an ant-based model to improve service at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix. With about 200 aircraft a day taking off and landing on two runways and using gates at three concourses, the company wanted to make sure that each plane got in and out as quickly as possible, even if it arrived early or late.


    "People don't like being only 500 yards away from a gate and having to sit out there until another aircraft leaves," says Doug Lawson of Southwest. So Lawson created a computer model of the airport, giving each aircraft the ability to remember how long it took to get into and away from each gate. Then he set the model in motion to simulate a day's activity.


    "The planes are like ants searching for the best gate," he says. But rather than leaving virtual pheromones along the way, each aircraft remembers the faster gates and forgets the slower ones. After many simulations, using real data to vary arrival and departure times, each plane learned how to avoid an intolerable wait on the tarmac. Southwest was so pleased with the outcome, it may use a similar model to study the ticket counter area.



Skip to the article's third page to learn about applying bee behavior to small meetings. James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, already has covered this territory, but this inter-species learning is just fascinating.

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