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Wednesday, August 1, 2007Ants Uses Manners To Cut Through Crowds
A panicking crowd can be evacuated faster by placing certain types of obstacles in its path, according to Australian researchers who say we can learn from the masters of crowd control: ants.
Associate Professor Martin Burd from Monash University is using Argentine ants (Linepithema humile) to model the behaviour of panicking crowds.
And he is working with traffic engineering experts to develop better crowd-flow control systems.
Burd, an evolutionary ecologist, says preliminary research into this introduced species of ant backs the 'slower is faster' paradox of crowd behaviour.
"If the average speed of each individual moving is slower, the whole crowd is evacuated faster, and ants are actually doing this," he says.
"Ants in a panic don't behave the same way as humans. They stay calm and are polite to each other. They are not trying to save their own lives, but are behaving for the good of the group."
Although humans are unlikely to follow the sacrificial example lead of the Argentine ant, Burd says panicking crowds can be made to move more orderly through clever building design.
"Perversely if you simply put a pillar in front of the doorway you increase the evacuation speed," he says.
"Having that obstruction stops people jamming against other people in the doorway."
Another suggestion is to insert a divider rail down a corridor to create lanes that slow down movement and make traffic flow more orderly.
While the study may potentially help evacuations during a terrorist act, Burd says the real benefit of the research would be in more ordinary disasters such as a fire.
He says it can also be used in major outdoor events to better manage crowd movements.
The idea for Burd's study came while trying to navigate the crowd at Melbourne's Flinders Street Station on New Year's Eve.
"I just thought there's got to be a better way to handle these dense crowds," he says.
Burd says ants are used to model traffic behaviour because they naturally form lines and follow physical pathways.
"The point of ants is that they have natural traffic behaviour and that closely relates to crowd movement."
Monash University's Graham Currie, a professor of public transport, is working with Burd on modelling the ant movements.
He says he was originally sceptical about the research. But after two years studying ant traffic behaviour he says his mind has been "opened up".
"The fact is we have been dealing with traffic congestion and individual people flow for about 2000 years, while ants have been dealing with it for millions of years," he says.
"Ants work together with a communal instinct. These behaviours can be learned and we can learn from them."