Disney has filed a patent that hints at its upcoming robotic efforts. The company has already suggested its parks could be staffed by humanoid robots rather than human characters, but its new patent describes these robots as “huggable and interactive,” while also being “robust to playful, physical interaction.”

The patent was filed back in February, before the company’s Jon Snoddy, Disney’s senior vice president for research and development, told the BBC about its plans.

It describes a soft body so it’s lovely and cuddly thanks to fluid-filled voids which cushion the more rigid body parts. It also integrates flexible membranes and pressure sensors to detect touch from humans.

The patent lists a few variations of robots including a furry seal  robot that can be petted as if it’s a real life exhibit in a zoo. The list of robotic beings Disney hopes to release also includes human-like robots with “soft, sensorized skins to ensure human safety.”

What the patent doesn’t really explain is how the robots will be used and whether their skills are emotionally advanced as well as feeling like real humans or animals. For example, would a robot Mickey Mouse interact with humans in the same way the characters currently do in Disneyworld and Disneyland?

15/03/2017: Robotic Mickey Mouse to make appearances at Disney resorts

Disney is working on a robotic, AI-powered Mickey Mouse that will interact with people as if it’s a real-life Mickey, the company has revealed.

The life-sized characters will walk around its resorts, chatting to people, just like its dressed up humans do at the moment. They will also tell stories to engage their young following.

The company announced its intentions to bring a little automation to its theme parks at SXSW, where the company explained introducing new technologies such as AI and machine learning are vital for its success.

It demonstrated a robotic version of Pascal, the chameleon from Disney’s Tangled film to show what was achievable.

“I think AI and machine learning is going to be very important for what we do,” Jon Snoddy, Disney’s senior vice president for research and development, told the BBC.  “Things like characters that can move around among our guests. They’re going to need to understand where they’re going, have goals, and they’re going to have to know how to navigate in a world with humans.”

However, Snoddy accepted that having a walking, talking robot dressed up as Mickey Mouse, Elsa or any of its other characters could be quite scary for both children and their parents at the parks. He said this was not what Disney was going to do and the fact the characters would be powered by AI would not be at all evident to anyone interacting with them.

“Obviously we’re not the business of scaring kids! That won’t be part of what we deploy. We go and do tests in our parks to gauge the reaction and try and understand what kids find entertaining about these things,” he explained.

“We’re not going to put up a sign that says ‘Look! Artificial intelligence’, because no-one would come to see that. They really come to be moved emotionally, that will not change.”