Hands Off! Barbara Webb and colleagues report that human hands are not required to do clever things

[2021] Professor of Biorobotics Barbara Webb collaborates with University of St Andrews colleagues to find out how animals perform skillful tasks.

Photo of a bee on a yellow flower
Bee in flower by David J Pritchard


The research was led by scientists from the School of Biology, University of St Andrews with Barbara Webb as a co-author of the paper. The study, entitled 'Object manipulation without hands', was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B and investigated how animals perform skillful tasks often associated with dexterity and human hands, which could have future implications for the development of novel robotic designs.

Having hands has enabled humans to develop pivotal innovations, and as such the standard perception is that hands are necessary for complex actions such as making and manipulating tools. Current understanding of manipulation of objects is based on primate hands, resulting in a detailed but narrow perspective of ways to handle a variety of items. Although most other animals lack hands, they are still capable of flexible manipulation of diverse objects, including food and nest materials, and depend on dexterity in object handling to survive and reproduce.

Many animals handle objects everyday, just to eat or raise their kids. Most of them achieve this without using hands, because they don’t have them! Animals like birds crack open seeds or remove feathers from prey simply using their bills while animals like your pet dog or cat use their nose and paws to push and hold their toys.

Because as a human I rely on my hands so much, I find this behaviour of manipulation without hands extraordinary. But for these animals, it is part of everyday life. And because manipulation happens in such diverse ways, animals provide a rich source of inspiration for novel robotics.

Shoko Sugasawa, Lead author of the study
Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) Fellow at the University of St Andrews

Animals inspiring innovation in robotics

The new research compared data from primates, birds, and insects and how each animal senses and grasps objects. Birds, for instance, use their bills and feet to forage and build nests, while insects carry food and construct nests with their mandibles and legs. Bird bills and insect mandibles are much simpler than a primate hand, and often more closely resemble simple robotic grippers than hands. By investigating this the researchers suggest redirecting the focus of manipulation research beyond hands to provide a broader comparative perspective on the origins of dexterity.

Manipulation of natural objects is a major, and largely unsolved, problem for robotics. Although recent advances in gripper design, new sensory systems and new algorithmic approaches have improved performance of robotic systems in these areas, many potential robotic applications are severely limited by the inability of robots to grasp diverse objects with efficiency and reliability. It remains the case that state-of-the-art robot systems are easily outperformed by animals, including those without hands.

As birds and insects manage skilled manipulation only using their structurally simple manipulators and fewer neurons, their bills and mandibles could inspire the development of efficient robotic mandibles in a novel way. Studying manipulation in birds and insects not only suggests novel robotic designs, but can serve as a link between the fields of animal behaviour, animal cognition, functional morphology, and biomechanics.

Barbara Webb

Co-author Barbara Webb is Professor of Biorobotics at the School of Informatics. Her main research interest is in perceptual systems for the control of behaviour, through building computational and physical (robot) models of the hypothesised mechanisms. Barbar has a particular focus on insect behaviours, as their smaller nervous systems may be easier to understand.

Barbara is about to start a new EPSRC-funded project to explore how the skilled manipulation of insects can inspire novel robotic solutions. Studying manipulation in birds and insects not only suggests novel robotic designs, but can serve as a link between the fields of animal behaviour, animal cognition, functional morphology, and biomechanics.

Related Links

Read the full paper at the Proceedings of the Royal Society B website (doi.org/10.1098/rspb.20203184)

Barbara Webb

School of Biology at the University of St Andrews