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Meet Astro, Amazon’s new robot that follows its humans around the house

September 28, 2021, 6:06 PM UTC

Amazon has built a robot that can autonomously roam around people’s livings rooms, deliver medications to the elderly, and scout for thieves like a security camera on wheels.

The online retail giant debuted the Astro robot on Tuesday during an online event showcasing the company’s new consumer technology devices. The robot, which will initially cost $1,000, will be available to a limited number of people in the U.S. who apply to be early customers. Eventually, Amazon plans to raise the robot’s price to $1,450.

The robot is essentially an Echo Show—Amazon’s touch screen device with speakers—with wheels attached. The 20-pound device resembles a fat hand-vacuum cleaner with a short cylinder for a body and a 10-inch tablet computer sprouting from the top as a sort of face.

Astro Robot
Astro Robot

Amazon is no stranger to robotics, having bought warehouse robot maker Kiva systems in 2012 for $775 million to help it fill online orders more quickly. Amazon vice president of product Charlie Tritschler said that while Amazon’s consumer robotics team consulted with the Kiva unit early during Astro’s development, it was difficult to convert a warehouse robot into a home robot because, for example, it needed avoid children’s toys scattered on the carpet and respond to only so-called “wake words” during family conversations.

During a demonstration for Fortune, the robot sometimes seemed slow to respond to its name and its lurching movements weren’t exactly graceful. But in debuting a robot, Amazon has beaten other tech giants like Google parent Alphabet, Facebook, and Apple.

Tritschler said that Amazon has built “well over 1,000” Astro robots, but declined to comment about where they are manufactured or how.

Arguably the most successful home robot has been the Roomba vacuum cleaner developed by U.S. company iRobot. Other more recent attempts to sell consumer robots have ended in failure. Japanese tech conglomerate Softbank recently stopped mass producing its Pepper robot after it failed to catch on, and a high-profile robotic toy company Anki shut down in 2019 after developing a mini-robot that could recognize people’s faces and follow their movements.

Tritschler acknowledged the difficulty of selling a consumer robot, but said Amazon is committed to household robotics for years to come. Astro is merely the company’s “version one” of presumably many more robots, he said. 

“Nobody was asking for the Kindle, nobody was asking for Alexa,” Tritschler said, mentioning Amazon’s successful e-reader and voice-activated digital assistant. However, he neglected to mention prior duds like the Amazon Fire smartphone.

What can Amazon’s robot do?

Astro navigates homes without colliding into walls by creating an internal digital map. When brushing his teeth or doing chores, for example, Tritschler said he uses the robot to trail him while playing podcasts. However, there’s a limit to the robot’s mobility. It doesn’t climb or descend stairs, meaning it may be unable to roam much in certain homes.

The robot’s digital screen features two cartoonish circles that appear like eyes that pivot up or down, seeming to peer at anyone who is talking to it. When the robot is on the move, its digital screen pivots to the direction it is heading to signal to people where it’s heading.

The screen can also be used to play videos or music via the Alexa voice-assistant.

When told “Raise your Periscope,” Astro sprouts a periscope, which has a 12-megapixel camera affixed to the top for photos and videos. A 5-megapixel camera is embedded in the robot’s display screen. 

Through a separate smartphone app, Astro can send a live video feed to homeowners so they can see what’s going on at home when they aren’t around. They can ask Astro to check on specific rooms, at which point it will move there and send a live feed, that Amazon said would be useful for checking whether a stove was accidentally left on.

Meanwhile, another feature, called Alexa Guard, prompts Astro to listen for unusual noises when homeowners are away. If it detects such a noise, the robot notifies the homeowners through the same app. People can also activate Astro to patrol their homes when they are away via a separate subscription to the company’s Ring security service, which operates using its own Ring app.

Astro can be equipped with a cup holder accessory, turning the robot into a butler. Someone in the kitchen can load a drink into the cup holder, and Astro can then shuttle it to where it’s needed in the living room. In a demonstration, Amazon principal product manager Anthony Robson used his voice ask Astro to deliver a drink to Tritschler, who was sitting across the room. Astro took a few seconds to figure out what it needed to do, but eventually moved over to Tritschler, who picked up the drink.

Tritschler said that Astro can be used to check on elderly parents, as sort of a home guardian. A child who lives across the country could direct Astro, using the smartphone app, to move next to a parent while activating the live video feed. Additionally, Astro can remind elderly people to take their medication and haul pills to them if the drugs have been placed in its cargo bin.

If a customer’s Internet service crashes, Astro becomes far less useful. Instead, it can only move around the home and respond to a few voice commands like “stop.” Amazon plans to add additional voice commands in the future that require no Internet connection.

Amazon said the robot has a two-hour battery life when it’s constantly displaying videos and patrolling. When its charge is low, the robot automatically moves to a docking station—resembling a large dust bin—for an electronic fuel-up of around 45 minutes for a full charge. In a demonstration, Astro lurched and initially missed its docking station, only to back up, reassess, and then successfully link up for a charge.

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