‘Smart ant’ algorithms cut vehicle fleet emissions in half
Aston University researchers claim that fleets of commercial vehicles operating in large towns and cities could halve their emissions using a new technology that imitates how ants share knowledge.
The software was developed and tested by computer scientists in the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences at Aston University in Birmingham, under the Think Beyond Data initiative, and was part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).
The software – that uses algorithms based on the way ants forage for food – uses ‘route optimisation’ to direct fleets of vehicles from the same company around a city or town slashing vehicle emissions in half whilst also saving time and fuel costs. The software can be installed on a laptop and business owners can then use the system to optimise their own routes based on the fleet’s daily needs.
The researchers say that the ability to commercial fleet vehicles’ routes is significant because it will enable cities and towns to move towards clean air targets with an alternative to establishing Clean Air Zones (CAZ).
Dr Darren Chitty, lead researcher, Aston University said: “There could be better ways to tackle the health and environmental problems caused by emissions. 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.
“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”.
The software has already been tested on several Birmingham-based fleets of vehicles to help minimise their road usage. Tests with a maintenance company comprised of up to 45 vehicles and 437 customer jobs over a six-week period. Observed savings amounted to over 50% of the company’s original time spent on the road. This enabled the maintenance company to make equivalent efficiency savings in fuel costs, boost profit margins, and cut vehicle emissions in half.
The technology mimics how colonies of ants solve problems and improves upon their existing behaviours. For example, 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. 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.
Dr Darren Chitty, lead researcher, Aston University said: “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.
“It means much larger fleet optimisation problems can be tackled within reasonable timescales using software a user can put on their laptop.”
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.