Wake Forest University, North Carolina, professor of Computer Science Errin Fulp, and his team of scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, Washington, are developing an army of ‘digital ants’ which will be set loose into the power grid of a computer to discover viruses in the system, a report in the university website said.

If the experiment is successful, it will have the ability to protect applications connected to SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) networks, a computer system that controls everything from water and sewer management procedures to mass transit systems.

“When that network connects to a power source, which connects to the smart grid, you have a jumping off point for computer viruses,” Fulp said. “A cyber attack can have a real physical result of shutting off power to a city or a nuclear power plant.”

The project has been successful on a small scale, but work needs to be done when scaled up to protect something complex as the nation’s power grid. Fulp and two of his computer science graduate students Jacob White and Michael Crouse are working with scientists at PNNL to answer the question.

“The idea is to deploy thousands of different types of digital ants, each looking for evidence of a threat,” Fulp wrote. “As they move about the network, they leave digital trails modeled after the scent trails ants in nature use to guide other ants. Each time a digital ant identifies some evidence, it is programmed to leave behind a stronger scent. Stronger scent trails attract more ants, producing the swarm that marks a potential computer infection.”

The concept is so promising that it was named by Scientific American magazine last year as one of the 'ten technologies that have the power to change our lives'.

The digital ants technology could modify cyber security as it familiarizes quickly to changing threats, added Fulp. The research has received nearly $250,0000 in grants from PNNL/Battelle Memorial Institute.