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Bluetronix, Inc.
35 River Street
Chagrin Falls, OH 44022

Press Archives

Cleveland, OH January 31, 2004 -
Local firm has 'high hopes' for its ant-based research
By: Douglas J. Guth, Staff Reporter-
Cleveland Jewish News.

A casual observer of an ant nest might see a chaotic mess of mindless activity. In actuality, ants are the model of efficiency, able to interdependently perform complex tasks that sustain their environment.

So, to paraphrase that old Frank Sinatra song, how does that little ant move that rubber-tree plant? Mark Heiferling knows it's not "high hopes" that gets the work done, but "swarm intelligence."

Bluetronix president Mark Heiferling, center, with Ryan Sheehan, right, and Ed Petrea work on "swarm intelligence."

This behavior is now being harnessed as a model for a new technology that could drastically change military wireless communications. On the local forefront of this unique effort is Bluetronix, Inc., a 2-1/2-year-old company founded by 46-year-old Beachwood native Heiferling.

Heiferling and his six-person team are developing software and hardware they believe could connect every American soldier, aircraft and ship, with each representing an equal part of the network. The U.S. Department of Defense has given the company its vote of confidence by awarding Bluetronix, Inc. a $750,000 contract.

The easy-going Heiferling, a married father of two who wears a bushy moustache and a perpetual grin, has an extensive background in the information technology and wireless communications industries. He and two of his researchers met with this reporter in Bluetronix's comfortable Chagrin Falls office. Heiferling's well developed sense of humor is apparent - a couple of oversized plastic novelty ants on the table oversaw our interview - but he's very serious, and excited, about his work.

For "social insects" like ants, he notes, teamwork is largely self-organized, coordinated primarily through the interactions of individual colony members. This idea is the key to swarm-based communications. The system, like the insects it's based on, is designed to be adaptable and robust; even when one or more individuals fail, the group can still perform its tasks.

Imagine, says Heiferling, an ant foraging for food. In a simple case, two ants leave the nest at the same time, taking different paths, and mark their trail with a chemical scent, or pheromone. The ant taking the shorter path will return first, laying more pheromone as it goes. Other ants will follow the chemical-laden trail that is the most efficient route to the food source.

To put it simply, "each entity thinks on its own but acts as a group," the Bluetronix president explains. "Centralized control is moved to decentralized control and distributed intelligence."

In the world of wireless communications, this behavior can be used as an alternative to a "top-down" or strictly linear approach to data transmission.

Bluetronix is currently working on mobile routers (computer chips the size of a thumbnail containing mathematical algorithms) using swarm intelligence for military ad-hoc communications networks. These networks cover everything from tanks to missiles. The plan is to connect these multiple "nodes" so information can be better prioritized and sent more effectively, even as these networks scale up to tens and even hundreds of thousands of nodes.

A "bottom-up" approach is critical on the battlefield, as wars are often fought in areas with little installed or trusted communications infrastructure, Heiferling remarks. With no central routing station, computers using Bluetronix's "digital pheromone" would help each transmission find the path of least resistance through the network, much like an ant to a food source. If part of the network is destroyed, communications would be rerouted through the new path of least resistance.

Potential applications of this research reach beyond the battlefield. Swarm intelligence can help businesses find solutions to problems that elude ordinary top-down analysis. Southwest Airlines, for example, has used swarm-based research to develop a more efficient model of cargo handling, saving the company $2 million annually in labor costs. Heiferling's team looks to one day commercialize their research for various industries.

For now, Bluetronix is preparing a computer simulation of their research. The demonstration for the Department of Defense will take place this spring, and could lead to a multimillion dollar contract for the company. Valtronic, a Solon company, will manufacture the tiny but powerful routers.

Heiferling and his crew are excited about the future of their research, which touches on artificial intelligence and other innovative applications. In theory, companies could build their entire businesses from the ground up using the principles of swarm intelligence.

Like ants themselves, Heiferling says, the possibilities are nearly limitless.

White papers on our products and technologies are available upon request. E-mail us at innovation@bluetronix.net or call 440.247.3434.

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