Television viewers were invited to meet the Jetsons in 1962. They were a future-dwelling, space-dwelling, flying car-driving family and their dog Astro. Amazon today wants you to meet another Astro. While it may not be as futuristic or fantastical as the Jetsons', it is actually present in our current.
Amazons Astro isn't a dog. Instead, it is the long-rumored robot that acts as a home assistant. Although Amazon claims that the name was not inspired by The Jetsons, I couldn't help but notice the resemblance with a pet dog when I saw the Astro in action last Wednesday.
The Amazons most ambitious in-home product, the Astro, will be available for purchase as a Day 1 Edition product starting at $999.99. You can request an invitation to buy it. Amazon views it as a combination of many parts of Amazon's robotics, AI and home monitoring, as well cloud services. The Astro can be described as the "love child" between an Echo Show smart screen and a Roomba. It is Amazon's next step towards the home robot.
The Astro is an attempt at combining a variety of Amazons strengths
Amazon claims that the Astro can perform many of the tasks you would expect from a robot at home. It can draw a floor plan of your home and follow commands to enter a particular room. It can identify faces and deliver items to specific people. It can play music, show you the weather, and answer your questions just like an Echo smart display. It can also be used to make video calls and keep you in the frame by following your movements. It can wander around your home if you're not there to make sure everything is fine. It can raise its camera to check if the stove is on or off. It can record data such as blood pressure using third-party accessories.
The Astro is ambitious, but it is still a very first attempt at a home assistant robot. It does not have arms or appendages, it cannot clean your floors, it cannot climb stairs and it is probably unable to do many other tasks that I am not aware of. Amazon has limited its availability at launch because it still has much to learn, even after many years of development.
The Astro is approximately two feet tall and weighs in at around 20 pounds. The main drive wheels measure 12 inches in diameter and are large enough to move through carpet. A single caster at the back aids in balance. Astro can travel at one meter per second, and it can move in any direction it chooses, forward, backward, or in any other direction.
Five motors are housed inside the shell, including one each for each drive wheel, one for raising and lowering its periscope camera and two to rotate and tilt its head.
This is the Echo Show 10's screen. The screen has a variety of sensors within its bezel and a standard 5-megapixel video calling cam. The screen shows two circles that act as eyes. This allows you to see what Astro is doing and where it is going. These circles can be used to show some personality, such as the expressions of the Jibos or the equally-fated Cozmo.
These circles are not what Astro uses to see you and your environment. The base of the unit contains a variety of sensors and cameras that allow the robot to see what is around it and where it is going. These include ultrasonic sensors, time of flight cameras and other imaging tools. Astros navigational tools can be used by itself. It doesn't need to use any external guidance or boundary markers, such as some robot vacuums. The robot can also tell when it is about to descend a set or hit an object.
Astro uses these sensors to map your home in a similar way to a robot vacuum. The Astro smartphone app allows you to label and adjust each room. The robot can also remember specific views you have set up in your home. You can also tell Astro to navigate to a particular location by using voice commands or remotely via the app. Amazon assumes that most people will place the Astro on the main floor of their house since it can't climb or descend stairs.
Amazon claims that all processing and storage of these maps takes place locally on the device. A portion of the data is then securely sent to the cloud, so you can use the app to tell Astro where to go. As a security measure, the Astro can only be paired with one phone at a given time. The Astro also stores its facial recognition data locally.
A pair of speakers measuring two inches are located between the sensors at the front of the robot. To increase the bass output, there is also a passive resonanceator at the bottom. These can be quite loud when you play music. The Astro can follow you around and move itself to the best position so that you can hear it clearly.
The Astro's diminutive size is compensated by a 12-megapixel periscope camera. It can rise up to 42 inches, which is enough to see above a normal counter or table. The accompanying app allows you to view the camera through your phone and make video calls. The far-field microphones, which are used for voice commands, are located around the telescoping pole.
A small payload area is located around the back, which can hold 4.4 lbs (2kg) worth of cargo. This area comes standard with an insert that has two cupholders. However, it can be easily swapped out for a basic bin. Amazon hopes that third parties will use this area and create accessories. The payload area has a 15-watt USB C port that you can charge your phone with, but its true purpose is to allow accessories to be plugged into it. Although Amazon executives mentioned a blood pressure cuff, I was unable to see it in person.
The Astro can attach itself to a charging dock, much like a robot vacuum. It takes approximately 45 minutes to charge the battery, and it can last for around two hours between charges. The Astro can manage its battery life by itself. If it runs out of power, it will simply go to the dock and charge again. You can also command it via voice, touchscreen, or app. You can replace the internal battery by removing it from under the payload. However, it is not intended to be replaced often.
The Astro's brains are Qualcomm chips and not the Amazon-designed AZ2 processing unit found in the Echo Show 15. Because of the Astro's long development period, Qualcomm silicon was used. All of the Astros processing, and movements, are performed locally. This is not only for privacy but also because it's practical. An Astro would not be able navigate around unfamiliar obstacles as fast with a cloud-based system.
The Astros functionality is built upon Linux and Fire OS. Amazon will not announce an official Astro SDK at this time. However, it states that its easy to envision a world in which customers and developers can create unique capabilities that allow Astro's to continue getting better over the years. We look forward to sharing more information in the future.
Although the Astros design is not particularly elegant or beautiful, its utilitarian appearance seems to be more driven by function than emotion. Amazon executives explained to me that they have tried many forms and designs and settled on this design. The design isn't offensive or intimidating, which is important if you want people to accept a fully autonomous robot living in your home.
It can be difficult to understand how all these features and capabilities might work together in your home. Amazon offers a few use cases for remote elder care and home security, but also admits that there may be other uses.
The first use case is probably the most obvious. The Astro can be integrated with Rings security alarm systems and functions much like a Ring camera. It can record video clips and send them to Rings cloud. If a Ring motion or door sensor is activated, it can automatically go to the scene. It can be programmed to run autonomous patrols according to a schedule or to check out something manually through the Astro app. It's similar to the pitch for the Ring Always Home Cam drone.
The Astros Periscope Camera is best used for remote monitoring of your home. It can be set to raise the camera to view over obstacles or counters. You can also switch between the periscope and the mounted camera above the screen. The Amazon executives were quick to share their knowledge about how helpful it was to check if your oven is on while you're not home. Alexa Guard integration allows the Astro to notify you if there is a broken window, smoke alarm, or other sounds, much like an Echo speaker.
Amazon sees the Astro as being useful in remote monitoring elderly relatives. It can recognize faces and locate an elderly person to provide status notifications to caregivers. It can also be programmed to remind people to take their medication and check their blood pressure. The Astro's ability to locate them means that they can receive this reminder even when they are not in the same room. The Astro will be integrated into Alexa Together, which offers access to an emergency number and support for fall detection devices.
The Astro is Amazon's next step in how Alexa can be integrated into your home. The Astro's default voice command is Astro, which can be changed to Alexa or Echo by default. However, Alexa is the core of the system. The Astro can be used to control Alexa's calling service and to video call through Alexas. The screen's software is also lifted directly from the Echo Show.
Astros is able to recognize faces and play greetings or turn on your favorite music if it sees you. It is designed to learn your habits so that it can park itself in places like the kitchen.
The Astro has more personality than Alexa. It can move its body and change its shape, as well as adjust its screen to show attention or express emotions. It can be asked to dance and move in a manner that makes it easy to see where it is going and when it will turn. Amazon claims that the Astros personality makes it feel like an extension of their home, rather than a smart speaker or gadget. It will certainly be compared to the Jibo robot which engendered similar attachments.
The Astro is capable of doing many things, but it also has limitations. Before the official announcement of the device, I was able see Astro perform various tasks such as find a person, go to a specific place, and take a photograph. It was able follow me as I moved from room to room, and it did not have any difficulty navigating around obstacles.
It can't travel outside, can't climb or descend stairs, and has no arms or appendages that can open doors or cabinets. Also, it can't assist you in getting up from a fall. It can deliver ice cold beer to someone, but that person must still get it out of the fridge and place it in the Astro's back before it will tell it where to go. Although it can tell you when the oven is on, it cannot turn it off.
Software assistants will be as important as any other robots in the Astros competition.
It doesn't have the ability to do many of the assistant-type tasks that software is starting to do. It can't answer your phone or deal with telemarketers (something Google Pixel smartphones already do) and it cannot work with your doctor to schedule your next appointment. Although the Astro can notify you when someone rings your doorbell, it cannot sign for that package.
Amazon is, for its part aware of the Astros limitations. It released it in a restricted, invite-only version before making it available to the general public. According to the company, robot arms and other appendages may unlock additional capabilities but are too expensive right now to be practical or affordable. The problem is also what people will feel comfortable with in their homes at this point. While the Astros design isn't too far from a robot vacuum, add some R2-D2-like grab arms to make it more practical and allow people to open doors.
The Astro functions more like an artificial pet and less like a robot assistant. Although it can perform tricks and provide entertainment, it is far from the robots science fiction has made possible. The Astros insistent on being in the best possible position to see and hear you (a few feet in front of your screen, tilted toward you) is inexplicably like a dog asking for a treat or some scratches behind your ears. The thing is easy to love.
Amazon believes that every home will have at least one robot within the next five to ten year. The Astro is Amazon's attempt to be ahead of the pack, before it becomes too saturated with competition. It used the exact same approach to great success in its Echo project. This is not the first attempt at installing a robot in your house. Given the company's almost limitless resources, the company doesn't need to make the Astro a huge success to continue developing this idea. Amazon claims that the Ring Protect Pro 6-month trial is included in the introductory price of $999.99. However, once it becomes a wider release, its price will rise to $1449.99.
Many questions regarding the Astro are still unanswered.
For all of us, the question is: How much do we want Amazons experiments and ideas to be tested in our most private spaces? Although the company has taken steps to reduce privacy concerns, it cannot predict how someone will feel about having their personal space invaded by robots in their homes until they are there. It is therefore necessary to conduct larger-scale testing that it cannot do in secret.
I'm also curious about how it behaves in real-world environments, other than Amazons beta testers. What will it do when a toddler rides it on its back? How does a dog handle a robot intruder in their territory? Is it able to avoid dog poop What use will it be if it is limited to one floor in a multi-story home? What convenience will it add to my home beyond the smart speakers?
These answers will need to wait until we are able to spend more quality time with the Astro, and test its capabilities. We will have to live with our dreams of robotic dogs until then.
Photography by Dan Seifert/The Verge
Correction: Tuesday, September 28th at 2:40 PM ET: An earlier version stated that maps created by Astro are not sent to the cloud. Amazon claims that a portion the mapping data is stored in cloud storage for remote access via their phone app.