OH January 31, 2004 -
Local firm has 'high hopes' for its ant-based research
By: Douglas J. Guth, Staff Reporter- Cleveland
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
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."
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
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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."
the world of wireless communications, this behavior can be used
as an alternative to a "top-down" or strictly linear approach to
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
ants themselves, Heiferling says, the possibilities are nearly limitless.
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