Amazon Astro robot: been there, done that

Amazon’s Astro robot is an Alexa device on wheels. | Credit: Amazon

The rumors were true. Amazon has been working on a home robot for years. And Ryan Hickman, who founded the cloud robotics team at Google in 2010, couldn’t have been more spot on with his prediction.

Amazon today finally unveiled Astro, which is essentially an Echo Show 10 on wheels. In 2018, Hickman offered up his reasons for why an Alexa on wheels made the most sense. Apparently Amazon agreed.

Amazon said Astro can be used for a variety of things, including home monitoring, videoconferencing with family and friends, entertaining children, and all of the same features we’ve come to know and love from Alexa devices – listen to music, check your schedule, etc. Astro can map your home and go to specific rooms on command. The voice-controllable robot can recognize faces, deliver items to specific people, after a human puts the item in the storage bin, and use third-party accessories to, for example, record blood pressure. It can detect the sound of a smoke alarm, carbon monoxide detector or breaking glass. If you have a Ring account, Astro can send you notifications if it notices something unusual.

Astro is two feet tall and weighs 20 lb. Its main drive wheels are about 12 inches in diameter, and Astro’s top speed is 3.3 feet per second. The screen is similar to that of an Echo Show 10, and the robot uses a 5-megapixel video calling camera.

Later this year, Amazon will sell a limited number of Astros. After an introductory price of $999.99, Astro’s price will increase to $1,449.99.

Will things be different this time?

Haven’t we been down this road already? We’ve seen several multipurpose home robots crash and burn over the years. Anki, Blue Frog Robotics, Jibo, and Mayfield Robotics are a few that immediately come to mind. These companies suffered from a number of issues, but the main challenges were pricing, performance, and funding.

While access to financial support shouldn’t be a problem for Astro, cost-performance and privacy very well could be. It can’t go up and down stairs. It doesn’t have arms to pick up and transport items. It has limited storage capacity. It can’t go outside. It won’t deter an intruder who’s already in a house. And its functionality is limited for users who don’t subscribe to other Amazon smart home products such as Ring.

As I’ve said before, that’s a lot of money to be able to check the weather, play your favorite tunes, or FaceTime with grandma. Amazon has sold millions of Echo devices at much cheaper prices. At press time, an Echo Show 5 can be purchased for just $45. Sure it doesn’t have all the latest bells and whistles, but I could buy 32 of those Echo 5s and place them throughout my home for the same price as 1 Astro robot.

Amazon said it is keeping privacy in mind with Astro. Users can turn off mics, cameras, and motion with one press of a button and set “out of bounds zones” to keep the robot out of certain rooms. Of course, Amazon has said this for other products in the past, but privacy issues persist.

The engineering and overall product development from Amazon will certainly be better than the aforementioned consumer robots. And Astro has access to a vast network of Amazon-related content and smart home devices that could turn it into a smart home controller for certain users, too. This is a major factor Buddy, Cozmo, Jibo, and Kuri lacked.

But will that be enough? The most successful consumer robot to date remains a single-purpose home robot: the Roomba. Multipurpose home robots have never been able to crack the code. I hope I’m wrong, but Astro’s likely to have the same fate. Despite spending many years, and likely a ridiculous amount of money, Amazon is limiting the sales of Astro. So it too doesn’t seem too confident in Astro’s future.

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