Find the shortest path in a graph which visits certain nodes


I have a undirected graph with about 100 nodes and about 200 edges. One node is labelled 'start', one is 'end', and there's about a dozen labelled 'mustpass'.

I need to find the shortest path through this graph that starts at 'start', ends at 'end', and passes through all of the 'mustpass' nodes (in any order).

( / is the graph in question – it represents a corn maze in Lancaster, PA)

Best Answer

Everyone else comparing this to the Travelling Salesman Problem probably hasn't read your question carefully. In TSP, the objective is to find the shortest cycle that visits all the vertices (a Hamiltonian cycle) -- it corresponds to having every node labelled 'mustpass'.

In your case, given that you have only about a dozen labelled 'mustpass', and given that 12! is rather small (479001600), you can simply try all permutations of only the 'mustpass' nodes, and look at the shortest path from 'start' to 'end' that visits the 'mustpass' nodes in that order -- it will simply be the concatenation of the shortest paths between every two consecutive nodes in that list.

In other words, first find the shortest distance between each pair of vertices (you can use Dijkstra's algorithm or others, but with those small numbers (100 nodes), even the simplest-to-code Floyd-Warshall algorithm will run in time). Then, once you have this in a table, try all permutations of your 'mustpass' nodes, and the rest.

Something like this:

//Precomputation: Find all pairs shortest paths, e.g. using Floyd-Warshall
n = number of nodes
for i=1 to n: for j=1 to n: d[i][j]=INF
for k=1 to n:
    for i=1 to n:
        for j=1 to n:
            d[i][j] = min(d[i][j], d[i][k] + d[k][j])
//That *really* gives the shortest distance between every pair of nodes! :-)

//Now try all permutations
shortest = INF
for each permutation a[1],a[2],...a[k] of the 'mustpass' nodes:
    shortest = min(shortest, d['start'][a[1]]+d[a[1]][a[2]]+...+d[a[k]]['end'])
print shortest

(Of course that's not real code, and if you want the actual path you'll have to keep track of which permutation gives the shortest distance, and also what the all-pairs shortest paths are, but you get the idea.)

It will run in at most a few seconds on any reasonable language :)
[If you have n nodes and k 'mustpass' nodes, its running time is O(n3) for the Floyd-Warshall part, and O(k!n) for the all permutations part, and 100^3+(12!)(100) is practically peanuts unless you have some really restrictive constraints.]

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