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A Real-World Realization of the AntNet Routing Algorithm with ActivityBots

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To ease teaching self-organizing systems design, we implemented the AntNet routing algorithm for real-world application using educational robots called ActivityBot. Using line sensors and ultrasonic distance sensors, the robotic ants traverse a tiled graph printed on paper, collectively converging to the shortest path. In our descriptions, we address the challenges to face when employing such self-organizing systems on educational hardware and provide a video on YouTube
A Real-Word Realization of the AntNet Routing Algorithm with ActivityBots
Jonas Wilfert, Niklas Paprotta, Oliver Kosak, Simon Stieber, Alexander Schiendorferand Wolfgang Reif
,Institute for Software & Systems Engineering—University of Augsburg
{jonas.wilfert; niklas.paprotta} {kosak; stieber; schiendorfer; reif}
Abstract—To ease teaching self-organizing systems design, we
implemented the AntNet routing algorithm for real-world
application using educational robots called ActivityBot. Using
line sensors and ultrasonic distance sensors, the robotic ants
traverse a tiled graph printed on paper, collectively converging
to the shortest path. In our descriptions, we address the
challenges to face when employing such self-organizing systems
on educational hardware and provide a video on YouTube
Index Terms—AntNet, ActivityBots, Teaching
1. Motivation
We present a real-world realization of the AntNet routing
algorithm with small educational robots as agents. AntNet
finds the shortest path on a graph using self-organizing
(SO) ants similar to the ant colony optimization algorithm.
Using such SO algorithms as a new paradigm for devel-
oping software can provide many enhancements compared
to traditional approaches. These can be employed in cases
where the system needs to be robust against failures, e.g.,
in the energy domain [1] or in major catastrophe scenarios
[2]. However, functionality of SO systems are often hard
to grasp. Our real-world realization helps to visualize the
behavior of the individual agents. To ease the entry to this
field of research for future students, we developed a simu-
lation environment to allow testing own implementations of
SO-algorithms. Crossing the gap between a simulation and
reality posed some challenges we address in the following.
While a corresponding video demonstrating our work can
be found on YouTube we also provide our implementation1.
2. Related Work
We implement the AntNet Routing Algorithm [3] which
is a modification of the more general approach of Ant
Colony Optimization (ACO) [4] specialized for finding the
shortest path. Both algorithms are bio-inspired [5] as they
mimic the way that ants in nature release pheromones
while they travel to perform harvesting tasks efficiently.
Similarly, ACO uses several simulated ants to traverse a
graph. Once all forward-ants reach the target node, they
release pheromones relative to the length of the edges they
1. code on GitHub
Robotic Ant Routing Table
WiFi Graph-Data GUI
Figure 1. Overview on the system architecture.
took by traversing the route backwards as backward-ants.
At each node, the ant decides which edge to take next
using a heuristic over the pheromone levels and the length
of the next edge. Repeating this procedure several times
reinforces short paths until all ants converge unto a single,
approximately shortest, route. Practical usage of the AntNet
algorithm can be found in the task of routing packages in
communication networks [6]. One major advantage of the
AntNet algorithm compared to classic algorithms like A
is its robustness against failures of nodes and edges in the
network. These can be removed while the algorithm runs and
the SO ants adapt to the situation for finding another short
path. We chose AntNet as an ACO derivative as the concept
of forward- and backward-ants can be applied seamlessly to
robotic hardware.
3. Realization
We split the implementation into two main parts (cf.
Fig. 1). On the hardware side, there are the ActivityBots
(ants) driving on a tiled map printed on paper (cf. Section 3).
Actions of the ants are controlled by the AntNet routing
algorithm running on the central server (cf. Section 3) we
use to emulate the release of pheromones inside a shared
environment. All actors are connected to the same WiFi
access point and communicate over the TCP protocol.
Real World Implementation. The robotic ants are
based on the ActivityBot educational robot produced by Par-
allax [7]. These robots come with various supported sensors,
such as an ultrasonic distance sensor and a line sensor
we used. ActivityBots can be easily equipped with WiFi
and are very maneuverable. This enables them to follow
a graph which we designed consisting of laminated paper
tiles. Inter-connectable tiles represent the edges of the graph.
They show straight and curved lines the ActivityBots can
follow using the line sensors on the bottom of their chassis.
We print two lanes on the tiles to avoid colliding with
oncoming ants comparable to real-world road traffic. The
nodes of the graph are realized as roundabouts to prevent
accidents. Each entrance and exit is equipped with a unique
barcode to assign which node the ant is approaching or
leaving. After reading the barcode using the line sensor, the
ActivityBot checks whether the roundabout is uncrowded
using the ultrasonic distance sensor before entering it. Each
ActivityBot monitors its distance to vehicles in front and
slows down if necessary to avoid collisions. Additionally,
each ActivityBot detects issues like losing the road markings
or entering an unexpected roundabout entrance. If such
failure happens, ActivityBots enter an error state and signal
the misbehavior by blinking with the onboard LEDs until
human intervention. In order to keep the code running on
ActivityBots lightweight and straightforward, all complex
calculations are outsourced to digital twins running on the
central server, we describe in the next Section.
Central Server. A central server is needed to simu-
late the shared environment and synchronize the pheromones
due to the lack of pheromones the robotic ants can leave
behind. The server stores a digital twin of each robotic
ant to allow better control over them. To stay true to the
mindset of the swarm algorithm, the server is not a central
authority with global knowledge but a rather a simulation of
the environment. Each digital twin waits for requests by the
robotic ant when reaching a roundabout and evaluates the
subsequent actions based on the simulated pheromones. The
new instructions are sent back to the robotic ant, which then
executes the requested command while performing some er-
ror checking, as explained in the last section. This approach
has major advantages compared to running computations
directly on the robotic ant: First of all, it allows the ant to
be visualized in a central view running on the server, which
helps to understand the convergence behavior. Furthermore,
it allows the parameters of the AntNet routing algorithm
to be changed or replaced entirely by a different swarm
algorithm without having to reprogram each robotic ant
individually. Due to the physical limitations of the processor
and line sensor we used, the velocity of the robotic ant is
relatively slow. Estimations show that on a graph with seven
nodes and six robotic ants, it would take up to 8 hours to find
the shortest path finally. To decrease this period, the concept
was extended with pure virtual ants. A virtual ant does not
have a robotic ant as a counterpart. Therefore it is not limited
to any maximum velocity, and the number of virtual ants
can be freely chosen. This allows the convergence of the
shortest path to speed up if desired. To synchronize the
virtual with the robotic ants, a change from the original
AntNet implementation was required. In the original imple-
mentation, all ants reach the target eventually. Only then
they also update pheromones on the traversed path with
respect to the respective path length. This approach does
not work with continuous driving ants, as there is a physical
limitation concerning the number of real ants driving within
the target node or on the road without blocking other ants.
As an alternative, we implemented a tick-based concept.
With every tick, the purely virtual ants get moved by a
fixed distance of a few centimeters on the graph, and the
pheromones get evaporated. The evaporation factor needs to
be way longer than usual, e.g., = 0.0005·Nwhere Nis the
number of ants. When an ant reaches the target, it increases
the pheromones on the path relative to its taken path length.
Instead of following the same path back, it swaps the start
and end node and returns to the original start node. The
parameters used in the showcase are α= 1.0and β= 0.1.
Challenges. The line following sensor proved to
be inferior, resulting in high variance of the individual
sensors. Improvements could be achieved by a 3D-printed
light shield and some adjustments to the PI controller.
Additionally, two edge lines have been found to be more
robust than a single following line in the middle of the
road. To ensure the correctness of the barcode reading, parity
bits were added to the barcodes at the roundabouts. Due to
interference of the ultrasonic distance sensors, a randomized
waiting time between the ultrasound impulses was added to
prohibit emergent behavior.
4. Conclusion
We created a visualization of the AntNet Routing Algo-
rithm, which uses real-world agents to illustrate the func-
tionality. Using this algorithm, the agents’ convergence to-
wards the shortest path is very robust against failures, as
seen in the complementary video. Due to the robotic ants’
low velocity, we extended the real-world implementation
with purely simulated ants. Both types of ants seamlessly
work together to optimize a typical graph. By combining
software with hardware, we provide a system that improves
the teaching experience of SO systems by visualizing the
behavior of multiple agents in a real-world environment
while maintaining a reasonable convergence time due to the
simulation environment. This enables students to implement
and test their own SO algorithms in a simple but visually
descriptive way.
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Alamitos, Calif.: IEEE Computer Society, 2015, pp. 1–10.
[2] O. Kosak, F. Bohn, L. Eing, D. Rall, C. Wanninger, A. Hoffmann, and
W. Reif, “Swarm and collective capabilities for multipotent robot en-
sembles,” in Leveraging Applications of Formal Methods, Verification
and Validation: Engineering Principles, T. Margaria and B. Steffen,
Eds. Cham: Springer, 2020, pp. 525–540.
[3] G. Di Caro and M. Dorigo, “Antnet: Distributed stigmergetic control
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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Activitybot 360°robot kit
  • Parallax Inc
Parallax Inc., "Activitybot 360°robot kit." [Online]. Available: