Once the CEO of iRobot Told me in the blink of an eye that he couldn’t be a truly successful roboticist until he became a vacuum salesman. It’s a fine line, and one that betrays some fundamental truths about the industry. Robots are tough, and in many ways doubling down to domestic robots.
No one has managed to crack the code beyond the wild success of robotic vacuums like the Roomba, not for lack of trying. To date, it’s largely been the domain of startups like Anki and Jibo (or the rare exception of the Bosch-made Kuri), but today, Amazon announced that it’s throwing a tremendous amount of its own resources behind the problem.
In fact, it is doing much more than that. The company recently announced its first robot Astro. The product is taking its first baby steps in the market as part of the Amazon Day One Edition program. Previously Amazon has used platforms similar to Kickstarter or Indiegogo, where customers effectively vote with their pre-orders. The new robot, which shares a name with the Jetsons dog, a track on the White Stripes debut and the major league baseball team in Houston, will be available on a limited basis later this year. The Astro is, far and away, the most ambitious device ever to launch with the program, which so far includes things like a receipt printer and a smart cuckoo clock. It is also the most expensive, priced at $999.
At launch the robot performs three primary functions:
- home security
- monitoring loved ones
- Offering a one-of-a-kind mobile version of the Alexa experience at home
The company began work on the robot about four years ago, taking advantage of Amazon’s various departments to create a fully realized home robot.
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“We talked about AI, computer vision and processing power, and one of the topics that came up was robotics,” Amazon VP Charlie Tritsler tells . “How robotics has changed to make it possible for consumers. We have a lot of experience using robotics in our fulfillment center, but we thought it was better to make things more convenient or provide more peace of mind when you are at home. What can I do for the consumer? It got us thinking about it, and eventually we were like, ‘Jeez, does anyone think we won’t have robotics in our home in five to 10 years?’ “
Amazon Robotics — which began with the company’s acquisition of Kiva Systems in 2012 — formed a sounding board for the consumer team’s ideas. But the company’s existing robotics are industrial and mainly focused on delivering packages in the shortest possible time. Ultimately, Amazon said it had to build many of Astro’s components from scratch — including most notably, the SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping) system, which it uses to map and navigate the house. .
That last bit struck me as particularly surprising, considering how complex an undertaking it is (it’s something iRobot has been running for effectively a decade), but also some of the robotic technologies Amazon currently has. Have given. Most notably, the company acquired Canvas, a fully autonomous warehouse cart startup, in 2019. Astro ordered builds, however, other in-house technologies factored in, including Ring’s security monitoring and various Alexa and home technologies built into the robot, which features Amazon’s smart assistant.
I had the opportunity to chat with Astro last week, and from that point of view the robot has got a bit of a dual personality. The robot’s primary personality is described as something similar to R2-D2/BB8 or Wall-E. Its face, which is effectively a screen or tablet, sports at least one pair of eyes – like a set of lowercase, bold letter “o”. They blink and blink from time to time, but they’re nowhere near as expressive as Anki hired a team of former Pixar and DreamWorks animators to create with Cozmo.
This is sometimes augmented by blips and bloops, which bring to mind the aforementioned Star Wars droids. The robot can be summoned with “Hey Astro,” but when you need to interact more directly, it requires “Alexa,” at which point, the familiar voice assistant takes over.
In addition to offering some personality, the Astro’s 10-inch touchscreen face also functions as a standard Echo Show display, so you can do things like watch movies, teleconference, and control your smart home. The screen moves automatically and can be manually tilted up to 60 degrees for better viewing. Amazon’s new Visual ID also supports facial recognition to personalize conversations with Screen Astro.
There’s also a pair of speakers on board. Although the robot itself is surprisingly quiet (this is no robotic vacuum). In fact, Amazon tells me they had to introduce Sonic a la electric cars, so you know when it’s running around the house. You do hear the occasional servo sound, however, when it turns by changing the directions of its wheels.
There’s a cargo bin at the rear (which has an optional cupholder) that can carry up to 4.4 pounds. Inside is a USB-C port so you can charge your phone. The Astro has a Roomba-like dock and it takes less than an hour to charge from zero to full.
Not surprisingly, there are a whole bunch of sensors on board. This includes a proximity sensor built into its base and a pair of cameras, including a five-megapixel RGB one built into the bezel of its face/screen. The second is decidedly more surprising, popping out in over his head. This 12-megapixel RGB/IR camera sticks for livestreaming purposes. Its retractable base can be up to four feet long to serve as a sort of periscope to give the robot a better look.
After spending about an hour with the robot and its creators, I have to say I’m very impressed with what the team has created here. Of course, the question of how many people are interested in owning this thing is a completely different question. The company says it has tested the Astro in “thousands” of homes to correct some of the kinks — like the occasional corner stuck. The first day’s program is nothing short of a public beta when it comes to assessing customer interest in the product.
“I think this is the first of the Robot series that we are doing. It is an invitation-only event – we want to make sure that the people who receive Astro have an opportunity with it given the challenge of homes and different locations. Have a good experience,” says Tritsler. “As we think about longer term, as we think about consumer robotics, of course we all want different types of price ranges and capabilities, and a more directed mainstream product as part of that. But We think Astro is a good place where we validate all the work we have done to create value from day one and make sure that what we have done really makes sense to the consumer. We’ll be interested in getting that feedback when we start shipping the product later in the year.”