The robot arms designed to build cars in a factory setting have a limited reach, but still manage to weigh several tons. The Giacometti Arm, however, can extend over 65-feet,weighs just two-and-a-half pounds, and can easily squeeze into the trunk of your car.

Have researchers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology’s Suzumori Endo Lab managed to defy all the laws of the universe? Not exactly. The secret to the Giacometti Arm’s impressive reach, but minimal weight, is that the majority of its structure is made up of helium-filled balloons.

To further minimize the robot’s weight, instead of using heavy pneumatic actuators that require hoses attached along the arm’s length to pump hydraulic fluid, the Giacometti Arm takes advantage of lightweight artificial muscles to move its individual segments.

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Compared to the massive robots lifting heavy parts in a factory, that human workers have to stay well clear of for safety reasons, the Giacometti Arm could actually collapse on someone without causing any physical harm. But at the same time, the arm’s lifting capabilities are near non-existent. Attach anything larger than a small camera and the end of the robot’s arm wouldn’t get off the ground.

So what is a floating robot like this good for, besides maybe luring customers onto a used car lot? The arm’s creators don’t have any immediate plans to bring it to market, given it can be rendered useless with nothing more than a safety pin. But they envision the Giacometti Arm as one day being a practical tool for search and rescue purposes. Since it’s light and collapsible, it could easily be transported to the scene of an emergency and used to search for survivors, or hazards, while operators remain at a safe distance.

[YouTube via IEEE Spectrum]