Center for Strategic Communication

Sure, the military’s headless robotic pack mules and walking robo-zombies look scary, but those bots’ metal limbs are nowhere near as maneuverable as your human arms and legs. Those metal robots can also be really friggin’ heavy. That’s why the military is working on ways to make robots and their limbs lighter and more maneuverable with inflatable arms and squishy surfaces.

The Pentagon’s far-out research arm Darpa is preparing to award a $625,000 contract to iRobot — famous for its vacuum robot “Roomba” —  for an inflatable robotic arm. Called the Advanced Inflatable Robot, or AIR, the arm can lift four times its own weight and operates on principles less similar to a balloon than a car tire. It’s more than a glorified car tire, though, but a machine that can grab and clamp onto unsuspecting Gatorade bottles, seen in the video above. It’s still a very early prototype, but the plan is to eventually develop more inflatable robots that cost less while being light and safe enough for soldiers to carry.

“We don’t want, for example, robot arms that are like the industrial automation arms you would see in a manufacturing facility,” Chris Jones, iRobot’s director for research advancement, tells Danger Room. “They’re big, heavy, powerful, but are not meant to really be closely interacting in the proximity of people. They just don’t have that ability to have a soft touch.”

In a demonstration video from iRobot, the AIR closes in on a Gatorade bottle sitting on a suitcase. The bot whirls, pops open a hatch and inflates its arm. Then it removes the bottle and drags the suitcase across the floor. In an urban war zone, the bottle could be a grenade, and the suitcase could contain a bomb. The arm, meanwhile, only weighs a half-pound. It can only lift two or three pounds at present, but that’s still a much higher “strength-to-weight” ratio compared to conventional robotic arms, Jones adds. Most conventional arms can typically lift only a fraction of their own weight.

The engineers dialed down the arm’s strength for the test, Jones says. But by increasing the arm’s internal pressure, the arm would be able to lift heavier objects. At the same time, the arm’s pressure is designed to scale. If the robot runs into the wall, the arm would buckle instead of punching through it. If the arm didn’t scale, and then accidentally ran into someone, well, that person would have a bad time.

Which means, instead of a strong arm when a person is involved, “you want a robotic arm to be in a very compliant state,” Jones says. “So if it does make contact with a person, it’s much less likely to have a negative outcome.”

Darpa also wants robots that are squishier and somewhat on the freakier side. Last week, the agency revealed a tiny silicon-based, glow-in-the-dark robot. A video posted by the agency shows the machine — which resembles a sticky hands toy — squirming onto a bed of rocks. Fluid is then pumped into narrow channels built into the robot’s skin, which causes the machine to camouflage itself with the rocks. The fluids and soft shape could allow it to navigate into tight spaces, like under a doorway and into an insurgent lair.

That squishy bot also costs less than $100, and in the future, Darpa believes they could cost as little as a few dollars, according to an agency statement. Which makes it possible to imagine several dozen of those robots crawling under your doorway. At night. While you’re sleeping.

Last year, researchers at San Francisco engineering company Otherlab, with funding from Darpa, developed a giant inflatable robot with a long snout they named the Ant-Roach, short for anteater-cockroach. Just to say that again: Researchers made a giant, walking inflatable cockroach with an anteater head. That one weighed less than 70 pounds and was another very early experimental prototype, but it could conceivably carry more than a a thousand pounds. It means you could potentially haul the cockroach robot around with you, drop it on the ground, inflate it, and then throw a thousand pounds of gear onto its back and ride it.

The inflatable robot arm isn’t the only experimental military project from iRobot, either. The company has a reputation for developing cute, harmless household robots. But it also develops semi-autonomous kill-bots, shape-shifting robotic blobs and giant rocket-launching warrior robots. The company has also received hundreds of millions of dollars from the Pentagon to develop robots that can hunt for bombs. And it wants to build robot swarms.

They’re just not inflatable yet. But on a long enough timeline, inflatable could mean more than just bounce houses and balloons. It could also mean fear with a soft touch.