FC09 – Using Robot Models to Explore the Exploratory Behaviour of Insects

Lecturer: Barbara Webb
Fields: Behavioural biology, neuroscience, computational modelling, robotics


Insects are often thought to show only fixed ‘robotic’ behaviours but in fact exhibit substantial flexibility, from maggots exploring their world to find which odours signal risk or reward, to ants and bees discovering and efficiently navigating between food sources scattered over a large environment. Yet insects also have small brains, providing the promise that we may be able to understand and model these aspects of intelligent behaviour down to the single neuron level. This course will describe the current state of research in insect exploration, emphasising an explicitly mechanistic view of explanation: to understand a system, we should (literally) try to build it. The final lecture will reflect on this methodology of modelling and what we can learn by implementing biological explanations as robots. 

Session 1: Exploration in maggots, and the role of the body in behaviour.

Session 2: The neural basis of risk and reward in insect learning.

Session 3: Expert insect navigators – how do they discover and remember key locations in their world?

Session 4: Satisfying our own curiosity: using robots as models 


  1. Understand the importance of linking brain, body and environment to explain behaviour.
  2. Gain knowledge of current models of the neural mechanisms of exploration and learning in insects, and the key open questions. 
  3. Explore the role of (robot) models in scientific explanation



Barbara Webb completed a BSc in Psychology at the University of Sydney then a PhD in Artificial Intelligence at the University of Edinburgh. Her PhD research on building a robot model of cricket sound localization was featured in Scientific American. This established her as a pioneer in the field of biorobotics – using embodied models to evaluate biological hypotheses of behavioural control. She has published influential review articles on this methodology in Behavioural and Brain

Sciences, Nature, Trends in Neurosciences and Current Biology. In the last ten years the focus of her research has moved from basic sensorimotor control towards more complex insect behavioural capabilities, in the areas of associative learning and navigation. She has held lectureships at the University of Nottingham and University of Stirling before returning to a faculty position in the School of Informatics at Edinburgh in 2003. She was appointed to a personal chair as Professor of Biorobotics in 2010.

Affiliation: School of Informatics at Edinburgh
Website: http://blog.inf.ed.ac.uk/insectrobotics/