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The way Australian meat ants build their colonies could provide urban planners with an efficient means of building new neighbourhoods, according to a new report published by The Royal Society journal Interface.

The Local cost minimization in ant transport networks: from small-scale data to large-scale trade-offs report brings together data from a two-year field study into how ants construct trails linking separate nests. The authors then used this data to create a larger-scale version that could be used by urban developers to build new towns.

According to the authors, meat ants were chosen as they create transport networks that resemble those of human transport networks (linking one site to another) and – as the trails are large and kept clear of vegetation – are “probably costly to build and maintain”.

By studying the rule of construction the ants follow, the scientists created an algorithm that not only incorporates the robustness and efficiency of the ant networks, but is also cost effective.

“What is amazing about these ants is that they don’t rely on engineering to plan their networks, however it turns out that they are able to find a specific balance between cheapness, efficiency and robustness,” co-author and researcher in biology at the University of Sydney Tanya Latty said.

Speaking to The Fifth Estate, co-author Arianna Bottinelli, a PhD student at Uppsala University, added: “We used the ants’ rules to simulate networks that are about 1000 times bigger than theirs. The interesting finding was that we could still find a trace of the properties that characterise the ant networks’ structure, that is balance between cost, robustness and efficiency.

“Once we found what nature does, we tried to apply the same simple rules to predict what would happen to man-made system, electric grids for example, if they were built by these ants.”

The study showed that when building a new nest, the ants connected it to the closest nest available and possibly to a nearby food source (such as a tree). This system could therefore be used by developers when building a new suburb, as they could connect it to the closest city area to ensure that the whole power network is relatively cheap but also efficient.

Ms Bottinelli told The Fifth Estate: “From this study we have learnt that a simple rule of ‘connecting to the closest node’ iterated several times during the growth of a network gives a certain final result, that is a network that balances efficiency and cost fairly well, and that can be also made robust.

“A practical use of this prescription could be to improve human networks design and should depend on the goals that one wants to achieve when building a specific network. As a general rule, when drawing parallels between human and natural systems one should always be careful, however I think that what we observe in nature can definitely turn out to be useful at some point. I hope that with this work has made a step towards that direction.”

Co-author Professor David Sumpter from Uppsala University’s Department of Mathematics concurred, stating that the report “is a further step towards the understanding of nature and an attempt to use what we observe there to improve and advise the design of human-made systems”.

The report is the latest work into how biomimicry – the implementation of functions from biological systems into technological ones – can deal with pressing environmental concerns, such as overpopulation and climate change.

According to biomimicry expert Michael Pawlyn, founder of Exploration Architecture in the UK, biomimicry could be used to “address pretty much any functional design challenge, whether that’s designing cities, refurbishing cities, or even designing a really high performing building”.

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