Taking inspiration from nature, engineers have observed the crowd flow of ants to help design exits that function more effectively during evacuations of large buildings and sporting arenas.

Crowd safety is emerging as an important issue worldwide following numerous incidents in which crowd panic has resulted in injuries and/or death. The most recent incident being the Kiss nightclub fire in Brazil earlier this year which saw 242 people die. In research published in Transportation Research: Part C Monash University researchers have used a bio-inspired approach to better understand human traffic flow and potentially save lives in large-scale emergency situations.

Co-author, Dr Majid Sarvi from the Department of Civil Engineering said given the global trend towards mass urbanisation, and increasing incidence of mega-events, terrorism and natural disasters, it was important that public infrastructure such as office buildings, railway stations and sports arenas were designed to facilitate smooth emergency evacuations.

“With the large numbers of people who attend events, work in ever increasing tall buildings and use our transport systems, it is important buildings are designed to allow for quick and efficient evacuation should the need arise,” Dr Sarvi said.

The researchers examined several exit options in experiments: in the middle of a wall, at the corner, at the middle of a wall with a partial obstruction near the exit and at the corner with a partial obstruction near the exit.

“We found the ants evacuated rooms faster when the exits were located in corners rather than in the middle of hallways,” Dr Sarvi said.

“The location of the exit at the corner was 93.5 per cent more effective in reducing the evacuation time than when the exit was positioned in the middle of the wall.”

Dr Sarvi said the increased effectiveness of the corner exit could be due to the minimisation of conflict points at the evacuation point.

“With the middle exit, ants escaping along both sides of the wall had to change their direction at the exit in order to evacuate. This created conflict with the ants moving straight towards the exit,” Dr Sarvi said.

“However, with the corner exit scenario, there were comparatively fewer conflicts with the ants moving straight towards to exit and those escaping from the side walls.”

The researchers then simulated a human evacuation scenario and found that the ant model prediction accurately predicted human traffic flow.

“In the future, there is need to further examine the physical and behavioural similarities and dissimilarities among these different biological entities and how they may help to develop clever design solutions that could enhance crowd safety,” Dr Sarvi said.

The research team of Dr Sarvi, Associate Professor Martin Burd, Dr Nirajan Shiwakoti, Charitha Dias and Omid Ejtemai are now looking at enhancing the simulation capability and conducting experiments with different insects.