GIF: YouTube

The phones in our pockets might be getting more and more complicated, but many researchers advancing the field of robotics are actually engineering simpler bots designed to reliably perform very basic tasks. So instead of one day facing a terrifying future filled with terminators, these squishy rolling donuts might be our biggest threat.

Yoichi Masuda and Masato Ishikawa detail their work on these bots in a paper, Development of a Deformation-driven Rolling Robot with a Soft Outer Shell, published for the 2017 IEEE International Conference on Advanced Intelligent Mechatronics. Instead of trying to replicate the structure and movements of humans or animals, the researchers have designed this robot to function like the simplest of machines: the wheel.

But a wheel only functions when there’s a power source, and designing a robot that only works when it’s pushed down a hill limits its usefulness. Instead of motors and gears, however, the wheel surrounding this robot is made from a soft material that’s squished and stretched by a set of four wires connected to an inner core. It’s still mostly dependent on gravity to get around, as the robot is essentially repeatedly falling over as its changing shape makes it unstable. But that also greatly reduces the amount of power it needs to move.

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So what’s the value of a stripped down robot like this? It can’t serve you breakfast in the morning, or pick up a gun and charge into battle, but it can be a valuable tool for exploring areas too dangerous for humans to tread, and too risky to send an expensive piece of hardware. The robot’s core can be packed with sensors, even a 360-degree camera on either end, and rolled into a warzone for reconnaissance, or pointed at an active volcano and told to drive on in. The odds of it getting back in one piece are slim, but before its demise it could transmit loads of data, which could end up being far more valuable than the robot itself.

[YouTube via IEEE Spectrum]