Amazon just launched Astro, their new smart household robot for home monitoring. It’s basically an Echo Show on wheels that maps out your home just like a smart vacuum would.
It’s got a screen with emotive eyes to tell you what the robot is doing or thinking, and an array of sensors to see your home and the people interacting with it.
This robot can do a lot of things, but it can also not do a lot of things.
What Astro can do
Astro has five different motors to move around with. Its movement looks smooth and natural, capable of reaching a top speed of one metre per second.
It has a 5MP camera that can reach up to 42 inches high with a telescoping pole. Combining this with ultrasonic sensors and others in the array, Astro can map out your home just like a robot vacuum. You can then set ‘viewpoints’ and tell Astro to go to those places through a voice command or the app.
One of the roles Amazon wants Astro to fulfill is the home monitoring function. Astro can patrol around your house, sending your notifications if it senses an intruder and giving you a view of your house when you’re away.
The other role is an accessibility device, especially for the elderly. You can video call using the robot and it will follow you around if you tell it to do so. You can also send reminders or give alerts to loved ones through the robot using the Alexa Together service.
What Astro can’t do
As similar as it is to a robot vacuum, with home mapping, self-docking, and AI object avoidance, Astro cannot vacuum. In fact, it can’t do a lot of things. This is because it does not have many output peripherals.
It has lots of sensors to see your home, but the only real outputs it has are the wheel motors and the speakers. Astro does not have an arm to interact with the world, so it cannot do many things you might expect an accessibility device would do.
Astro has a cupholder on its rear, able to bring a bottle to someone at a specified viewpoint, but it can’t go to the fridge and get the bottle itself. You actually have to put the bottle in the cupholder first and tell it to move. At that point, I don’t see why you can’t just go to the viewpoint yourself.
If you’re away from home, you can check to see if your oven is on, but Astro can’t actually turn it off. Again, it has no real way to interact with the world.
“Astro is terrible”, says one of its developers
Astro just launched, but there have already been leaks from the developers saying some very negative things about the robot. One of the developers who worked on the robot said “Astro is terrible and will almost certainly throw itself down a flight of stairs if presented the opportunity. The person detection is unreliable at best, making the in-home security proposition laughable.”
There have also been reports of the telescoping pole getting stuck while extended, making it impossible to ship back to Amazon.
Many have criticised it by saying that having a home surveillance robot made by one of the world’s biggest corporations is a bad idea, especially with their history with privacy issues.
Amazon responded to these leaks and allegations by saying this:
“These characterizations of Astro’s performance, mast, and safety systems are simply inaccurate. Astro went through rigorous testing on both quality and safety, including tens of thousands of hours of testing with beta participants. This includes comprehensive testing on Astro’s advanced safety system, which is designed to avoid objects, detect stairs, and stop the device where and when necessary.“
Note that Amazon said ‘inaccurate’ instead of ‘not true’ and never really debunked any of the claims. Astro is most definitely not ready for a global release, which is evident in how Amazon is launching the device.
Right now, Astro has an introductory price of USD 999.99 (about RM4,184), including a six-month trial of Ring Protect Pro. This price will increase to USD 1449.99 (about RM6,068) upon wider release. Amazon is selling the device through an invite request system, meaning you have to fill out a survey before Amazon decides if they want to sell it to you.
In the form, you have to disclose things about your home like if they have “ramps between spaces or over stairs” or “one or more steps down with a curved top edge”. This suggests that Astro is not ready for a lot of home situations.
It isn’t perfect, but Astro looks like a start to a new revolution of home robots. Who will be the next to compete in this market? We’ll just have to see.