Light Friday: How Ants Invented the Internet
Credit: Luke Elstad
Credit: Luke Elstad

Plus: Sending Your Kid’s Toys into Space, Self-Driving Cars in California and How a Space Shuttle is Mounted to a 747.

Welcome to the Anternet

You may recall the moment during the opening ceremony of this year’s Olympics when Sir Tim Berners-Lee popped up on screen — many folks recognized the inventor of the World Wide Web by sight. However, according to recent research, the ceremony should have honored an ant hill instead.

Stanford biology professor Deborah Gordon studies ants. Her colleague Balaji Prabhakar is a computer science professor. They may not seem to have much in common, but when Gordon showed Prabhakar the research she’d conducted on ant colonies making decisions to dispatch foragers to collect food, a connection became apparent.

“It occurred to me, ‘Oh wait, this is almost the same as how [Internet] protocols discover how much bandwidth is available for transferring a file!’” Prabhakar told Stanford Engineering. The Internet uses Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) to send packets of data to a receiver node. If these packets are acknowledged quickly, the sender speeds up delivery. If the acknowledgements are slow, the sender slows down.

Gordon’s research revealed harvester ants operate on a comparable ratio: if foragers on the hunt return quickly with seeds, the colony knows to dispatch more ants faster; if the foragers are returning slowly, with little or no bounty, the search is slowed or ended.

“Ants have discovered an algorithm that we know well, and they’ve been doing it for millions of years,” Prabhakar said.

“So ant algorithms have to be simple, distributed and scalable – the very qualities that we need in large engineered distributed systems,” Gordon added. “I think as we start understanding more about how species of ants regulate their behavior, we’ll find many more useful applications for network algorithms.”

Sending Your Child’s Toys into Space

Anyone with children knows how difficult it can be to get them to clean up their toys scattered around the house. Well, imagine being able to send these playthings into space.

One dad turned this idea into an amazing father-son project, giving his son’s favorite toy train a trip beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. Ron Fugelseth built a special rig to mount the toy train, and used a weather balloon, a styrofoam box, a video camera and a GPS-equipped cell phone to send the cherished toy 18 miles above the planet’s surface.

Not only was the journey captured on video, but the train was returned safely to its four year-old owner, landing 27 miles away from the launch site. Check out this inspiring (and heartwarming) clip of engineering that’s fun for kids:

Self-Driving Cars in California

Would you trust a self-driving car?  Autonomous vehicles are gaining traction as an automotive trend, and now California is the latest state to legalize these cars, which will be operated and tested on West Coast roads.

Driverless cars use radar, sensor equipment and video cameras to analyze surrounding areas and navigate roads. In addition, these cars communicate with other vehicles while operating. The California bill, signed into law on Tuesday by Governor Edmund G. Brown, will pave the way for new technology that could lower highway fatalities and pollution, as well as provide a solution to congestion. The golden state follows Nevada and Florida in legalizing autonomous vehicles.

Within just five years, driverless cars are expected to be standard for “ordinary people,” at least according to Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who said that the automobiles will “turn parking into parkland” and improve safety on the road. Yet such cars might not be 100 percent safe. Although Google autonomous cars have already logged 300,000 miles of testing, safety-critical intervention (in the form of a human driver taking control) is needed after about 50,000 miles in the cars, PCWorld notes.

In addition to Google’s fleet of automated Priuses, GM’s Cadillac division is also on board, anticipating mass-market production of partially autonomous vehicles by 2015, Forbes reports.  Volvo has also completed a study on autonomous driving based on consumer feedback.

For now, the California bill requires a driver to be present if something goes wrong, a sign that more improvements are needed before chauffeurs are rendered obsolete.

How a Space Shuttle is Mounted on a Plane

After completing 25 missions, spending 299 days in space and travelling 123 million miles in total, the space shuttle Endeavour recently completed its final flight over the United States before coming to rest in the California Science Center.

The shuttle’s farewell tour across the U.S. was conducted with the help of a Boeing 747, and if you’ve ever wondered how a shuttle gets mounted onto a jumbo jet, a new timelapse video from the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida sheds light on the process.

The following clip shows how the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, a modified 747 jetliner, is prepped to carry the Endeavour:

Have a great weekend, folks.



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