Published: July 2007
Did You Know?
In Did You Know? the National Geographic magazine team shares extra information we gathered to expand your knowledge of our featured subjects.

Swarm intelligence is already used by businesses to improve efficiency and by the military as it develops ground and air robots, but it may soon be smoothing your morning commute, speeding your airport departures, or routing your plane around bad weather.

Traffic—air and ground—is a self-organizing system that fits very well into ant-foraging or flocking (otherwise known as "agent-based") models. The agent is the individual unit that is making decisions—you in your car or the pilot of a plane—based on the immediate environment around it. You and the other drivers gauge your speed according to weather conditions or each other's actions. If your car could run an algorithm determined by all the variables you were to encounter, and other cars were doing the same thing, everyone could adjust their speed or route accordingly, and traffic could run more smoothly. Of course, it's difficult to imagine turning over control of your car to a machine, so it is much more likely that a hybrid system would be used: The car would give advice derived from its computation of the situation, and you could accept or overrule it.

Air traffic, on the other hand, is already highly regulated by a top-down system of airport controllers. But researchers are running tests of agent-based systems to see if planes could self-organize safely and efficiently. With the proliferation of flights these days, especially at the busiest hub airports where planes take off or land minutes apart, it might be safer if—instead of each plane being monitored on an individual basis from a central control point—airplanes could flock like birds (though farther apart). They would adjust their own movements to stay in proximity to other airplanes, allowing for quicker landings and departures. At the same time, ant-routing algorithms could enable planes to find quick, safe routes around bad weather or into crowded airports.

That's plenty to ponder during your next traffic jam or flight delay.

—Elizabeth Snodgrass