Bees, bats, birds, fish and many other animals move together in groups they swarm, without apparently getting in each other’s way. How do they do that? I’m Jim Metzner and this is the Pulse of the Planet.
Abaid: Well, swarming, or collective behavior, happens in a lot of animal groups.
Nicole Abaid is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics at Virginia Tech
Abaid: When humans walk on the sidewalk together in New York without bumping into each other, that could be interpreted as a type of swarming. You’ve probably seen bird flocks and fish schools and these types of groups, which, a long time ago, people thought happened as a result of some sort of central leader some fish in front who said, “Everyone turn right.”
But now we know that we can actually reproduce those types of behaviors without a central leader. That’s why now engineers are interested in swarming.
Abaid: Say you want to do a complex flight formation. Instead of having to have the guy in the front tell everyone what to do, if you can make that sort of complexity emerge, it may be a nice and also robust way to solve an engineering problem.
Abaid: The way that I learn about collective behavior is through mathematical models, trying to reproduce qualitatively behaviors that we see in animal groups. In a fish school, in a bird flock, we don’t see massive collisions between individuals. We may see an aligned motion, which is tied up with that. Everyone’s going in the same direction, so you don’t hit each other. And then, they kind of stay together in a group. You could also think of a tour group, you know, walking around a museum this type of thing. And so, we can interpret that or model that as these forces that, number one, keep people apart when they’re too close together; number two, bring them together when they get too far apart; and number three, ask them to align themselves with the motion of the people around them.
Understanding swarms could lead to better navigational tools and other applications. We’ll hear more in future programs. I’m Jim Metzner and this is the Pulse of the Planet.