Understanding the A star algorithm
I recently learnt about the workings of the A* algorithm through Udacity's Intro to Self Driving Cars Nanodegree, and wanted to understand it in detail, hence this post on it.
Wikipedia article on A* states: "A star is a computer algorithm that is widely used in pathfinding and graph traversal, which is the process of finding a path between multiple points, called "nodes". It enjoys widespread use due to its performance and accuracy."
It was devised by Peter Hart, Nils Nilsson and Bertram Raphael of Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International) who first published the algorithm in 1968.
Table of Contents
Setup¶
We have a map of interconnected nodes and the problem that we want to solve is to find the shortest path between two nodes.
Terminology¶
Let's define some terminology that will help us understand the algorithm.
 Initial state ($s_0$) in the case of route finding refers to being at a starting node.

Actions $(s)$ > $\{a_1,a_2,a_3,...\}$
It refers to producing outcomes for a particular state. eg. the possible actions for the state of being at node
8
are movement to nodes14
,30
, and33
. 
Result $(s,a)$ > $s'$
The combination of being in a particular state and taking a particular action produces a new state. eg. the state of being at node
8
and action of moving to node14
results in the state of being at node14
with it's own set of further possible actions.  Step Cost refers to the cost incurred in taking an action. In the case of route finding, it can be the distance travelled while going from one node to another.
 Path Cost is the summation of individual step costs along a path consisting of one or more nodes.
 State Space is the set of all states we can be in. We navigate the state space by applying actions.
The Astar Algorithm¶
Let's start understanding these concepts using the map shown above. Let's use node 8
as start goal and node 2
as goal node.
A* uses a metric called fscore
which is a score to gauge how fruitful moving to the neighbor will be in finding the optimal path.
$$ f = g + h $$
where $f$ is the fscore
, $g$ or gscore
is the path cost of a node, and h
is a heuristic
used to estimate distance between a node and the goal. In this case, we'll be using euclidian distance between two nodes as the heuristic
.
Currently, the gscore
of node 8
is zero
while that of all others is set to infinity
(as we don't have that knowledge yet). As a result, the fscore
of all nodes except 8
is infinity
. fscore
of 8
is just the value of $h$ for 8
.
To make our lives easier we'll divide up the state space into separate segments:
 Explored
 Frontier
 Unexplored
We'll start with the frontier
consisting just the start
node. Until the frontier is empty or we reach the goal node, we'll do the following:
 Choose the node with the lowest
fscore
. At this moment it's node8
. Let's call this node thecurrent
node.  If the
current
node is thegoal
node, we're done. If not, remove it from thefrontier
and add it to theexplored
set.  Start exploring the neighbors of the
current
node. representscurrent
node, and represents the neighbor being considered.
 Add each neighbor to the
frontier
if it's not already in it. Ignore the neighbor if it's in theexplored
set. This will be highlighted below in the video frames titled "Already explored: {node}".  In the former case (ie, if the neighbor wasn't in the
explored
set), calculate it's tentativegscore
. In this case the tentativegscore
is the sum of thegscore
ofcurrent
and the euclidian distance betweencurrent
and the neighbor. Set the neighbor'sgscore
as this tentativescore
. Also update the neighbor'sfscore
.
This is how the map looks after one iteration of exploration. represents the frontier
set.
 Now we repeat the above steps again. This time the node with the lowest fscore will be
33
.  One point to take note here is that if the tentative
gscore
of a neighbor node is greater than or equal to it's already calculatedgscore
, there exists a better route to the neighbor than the path being considered. This will be highlighted below in the video frames titled "Better route exists to: {node}".
This is how the map looks after second iteration. The explored
set is indicated by and includes the nodes 8
and 33
. (8
is highlighted as since it's the start node).
This is how things look after the third iteration.
Astar summed up¶
 Start with the frontier consisting of a single node, which is the start node.
 Set up
gscore
s for all nodes toinfinity
except the start node, which is set tozero
. As a result,fscore
s for all nodes except the start node is alsoinfinity
.  While there are nodes in the frontier, in each iteration, choose the node with the lowest
fscore
. Term it ascurrent
node for the current iteration.  Go through each of this node's neighbors, and update it's
gscore
andfscore
using the formula $f = g + h$ where $g$ is the path cost of the neighbor (from the start node), and $h$ is the heuristic. Ignore the neighbor if it's already in thefrontier
or theexplored
set. Also ignore the neighbor if the tentativegscore
of neighbor (gscore
of "current node" + euclidian distance between "current node" and the neighbor) is greater than or equal to thegscore
of the neighbor. (This means that there exists a shorter route to the neighbor than the current route being considered).  Repeat last two steps until the
current
node is the goal node, or the frontier is empty.
Demo¶
Below is a video which shows the implementation of A* for finding shortest route between nodes 8
and 2
.
represents the start
node.
represents the goal
node.
represents nodes in the frontier
set.
represents nodes in the explored
set.
represents current
node, ie, the node with the lowest fscore
.
represents neighbors of the current node
being considered for exploration.
Shortest route between nodes 20
and 22
:
Shortest route between nodes 38
and 21
:
Code for the implementation can be found here.