Ants predict human behaviour in an emergency

Monash researcher Dr Nirajan Shiwakoti says ethical and safety concerns prevent researchers from testing evacuation procedures on people, so ants provide a welcome solution.

“In this research, the collective movement of panicking ants is measured and then results are scaled up to human situations,” says Nirajan.

Panicking ants are helping Melbourne researchers develop better placement of emergency exits and designs for train stations.
And their solution is a surprise: obstacles like poles or columns can improve the flow of panicking ants, and they escape faster when the exit is moved from the centre of a wall to a corner.

“The model successfully predicts human crowd behaviour, showing that similar factors govern crowd panic in the two very different species.”

Nirajan and colleagues at Monash University are working with Public Transport Victoria to plan public transport hubs which improve crowd flow.

Public Transport Victoria’s Director of Network Operations Norman Gray, AM, says they are always searching for ways to improve passenger flow at major stations.

“For example, at New Year’s Eve there were about 250,000 passengers going through Flinders Street Station. Crowd management is critical to both passenger safety and station efficiency at times like this,” Mr Gray says.

“If we can develop tools and methods from this ARC research project to simulate and test different plans, it would mean we could base station design and management decisions on scientifically proven findings.”

Nirajan’s experiments have included confining ants in chambers and “panicking” them with the injection of citronella oil, a natural insect repellent. Video recordings of the ants’ exit from the chamber are scaled up and a human simulation model developed by Nirajan is applied.

His research is the first to confirm that ant colonies replicate human crowd behaviour while escaping an emergency. This allows him to use ants to test human evacuation paths. Monash’s Institute of Transport Studies and School of Biological Sciences collaborated on the work, which is published in the journal Transportation Research Part B: Methodological.

Nirajan Shiwakoti is one of 12 early-career scientists unveiling their research to the public for the first time thanks Fresh Science, a national program sponsored by the Australian Government.

Nirajan is one of the Chief Investigators of a three-year project funded via an Australian Research Council (ARC) linkage grant between the Institute of Transport Studies at Monash University and Public Transport Victoria.

Further information

For interviews contact Nirajan Shiwakoti,

Video footage:

Panicking ants experiment (with obstruction)

Escaping from a room_ without obstruction

Escaping from a room_ with obstruction

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