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Smart ant algorithm could help to halve fleet emissions in cities

Researchers at Aston University in the UK have developed a technology which imitates how the insects share knowledge and which can be used to optimise routes around busy cities.

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Ant behaviour can help us to achieve clean air quality targets in cities
Ant behaviour can help us to achieve clean air quality targets in cities

Commercial vehicle fleets that operate in large towns and cities could potentially halve their emissions and better meet clean air targets using technology that models ant behaviour.

 

The software, which has been developed by Aston University researchers, imitates how ants share knowledge, scaling them up to real world problems like optimising routes around busy cities.

 

Clean air targets

 

Optimising routes of fleets of commercial vehicles is significant because it will enable cities and towns to move towards addressing their clean air targets and offer an alternative measure to establishing Clean Air Zones.

 

The research team used a technique known as “meta-heuristic” technology. The method mimics how colonies of ants solve problems and improves upon their existing behaviours.

 

For example, according to the researchers, each ant keeps a record of the best solution it has individually found and passes on this knowledge to other ants. This “best practice” then permeates throughout the colony, updating its store of know-how in a way comparable to computer algorithms.

“It means much larger fleet optimisation problems can be tackled within reasonable timescales using software a user can put on their laptop”

The researchers further developed the technique by creating even ‘smarter’ ant algorithms by reducing the amount of decisions they make such that they can solve city-scale fleet routing problems.

 

“Algorithms based on the foraging behaviour of ants have long been used to solve vehicle routing problems, but now we have found how to scale these up to city-size fleets operating over several weeks in much less time than before,” said Dr Darren Chitty, lead researcher, Aston University.

 

“It means much larger fleet optimisation problems can be tackled within reasonable timescales using software a user can put on their laptop.”

 

The route optimisation technology was tested on several Birmingham companies that operate fleets of vehicles to help them minimise their road usage.

 

A company that operates within the Birmingham area performing external maintenance tasks at customers’ properties, for instance, can spend a considerable part of its day criss-crossing the city’s road network, thus contributing to high levels of air pollution through their vehicle emissions and adding to congestion.

 

Tests with the maintenance company comprised of up to 45 vehicles and 437 customer jobs over a six-week period. Aston University claims it observed savings of more than 50 per cent over the company’s original time spent on the road.

“If all companies in a city operated with this technology, then emissions from these vehicles could be significantly reduced, improving air quality for all concerned”

This enabled the maintenance company to make equivalent savings in their fuel costs, boost profit margins, while cutting vehicle emissions in half.

 

The scientists were able to reduce CO2 emissions by 4.25kg per van per day and reduce more harmful emissions such as nitrous oxide by 98-grams per van per day.

 

“We feel that while Clean Air Zones will improve air quality for some residents, there could be better ways to tackle the health and environmental problems caused by emissions,” added Chitty.

 

“Instead of taxing commercial vehicles to enter these zones, our research can act as an incentive to companies as they will not only reduce emissions but also save money.”

 

He continued: “If all companies in a city operated with this technology, then emissions from these vehicles – which are some of the most polluting – could be significantly reduced, improving air quality for all concerned.”

 

Think Beyond Data

 

The software was developed by computer scientists in the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences at Aston University, in Birmingham, under the Think Beyond Data initiative, part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund.

 

The researchers are now looking to roll out the technology further by testing the system with different types of vehicle fleets such as larger vans or HGVs, as well as larger fleets of vehicles.

 

The team will continue to approach other companies to use as a testbed for the technology as the project is funded for another two years.

 

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