By Dan Seifert, an editor overseeing The Verge’s product reviews and service journalism programs. Dan has covered the technology world for over a decade at The Verge.
In the fall of 1962, TV-watching audiences were invited to meet the Jetsons, a space-dwelling, flying-car-driving family from the future and their dog, Astro. Today, Amazon wants you to meet a different Astro, one that’s not quite as fantastical or futuristic as the Jetsons, but actually available in our present.
Amazon’s Astro is not a dog; instead, it’s the company’s long-rumored home assistant robot. Though Amazon denies taking inspiration for the name from The Jetsons, it was hard to ignore the resemblance to a faithful pet when I got to see the Astro in action last week.
The Astro, which will initially cost $999.99 and available as a Day 1 Edition product that you can request an invite for the privilege of buying, is Amazon’s most ambitious in-home product yet. Amazon sees it as bringing together many different parts of the company — robotics, AI, home monitoring, cloud services — all into one device. Best described as the love child between a Roomba and an Echo Show smart display, the Astro is meant to be the next step in what Amazons believes to be the seemingly inevitable home robot.
The Astro is an attempt to combine a number of Amazon’s strengths
Amazon claims the Astro can do a wide variety of things you might want from a home robot. It can map out your floor plan and obey commands to go to a specific room. It can recognize faces and deliver items to a specific person. It can play music and show you the weather and answer questions like any Echo smart display. It can be used for video calls, always keeping you in frame by literally following your movements. It can roam around your house when you aren’t home, making sure everything is okay. It can raise its periscope camera to show you whether you’ve turned the stove off. It can use third-party accessories to record data like blood pressure.
But as ambitious as the Astro is, it still is very much a first cut at what a home assistant robot could be. It doesn’t have any arms or appendages; it can’t clean your floors; it can’t climb stairs; it can’t go outside of your home; and it probably can’t do a zillion other things I’m not thinking of at the moment. That’s part of the reason why Amazon is limiting its availability at launch — even after years of development, it still has a lot to figure out.
The Astro stands roughly two feet high and weighs about 20 pounds. Its main drive wheels are about 12 inches in diameter, large enough to clear door thresholds and move through carpet, while a single caster in the back helps it keep balanced. The Astro can zip along at a top speed of one meter per second and it has the ability to move in 360 degrees, forward, back, or any direction it pleases.
Inside the plastic-clad shell are five different motors: one for each drive wheel, one to raise and lower its periscope camera, and two to twist and tilt its “face.”
That face is effectively the screen lifted off an Echo Show 10. It’s got an array of sensors in its bezel, plus a standard 5-megapixel video calling camera. Most of the time, the screen displays two circles that behave as “eyes,” allowing you to understand what the Astro is doing or where it’s planning to go. It can also show some limited personality through these circles, contorting them into different shapes and angles, similar to the ill-fated Jibo’s expressions or the also-ill-fated Cozmo.
But those circles aren’t what the Astro uses to see you or its environment. It’s actual “eyes” are the variety of sensors and cameras packed into the base of the unit, things like ultrasonic sensors, time-of-flight cameras, and other imaging tools that let the robot know what’s around it and where it’s going. The Astro’s navigational tools are all inside of itself — there’s no need for special boundary markers or other external guidelines like some robot vacuums rely on — and it can tell when it’s about to head down a set of stairs or hit an object.
In another similarity to a robot vacuum, the Astro will use these sensors to map out your home. You can label each room and adjust the boundaries in the Astro smartphone app. You can also set up specific “viewpoints” in your home that the robot will remember. From there, you can tell the Astro to go to a specific location either with a voice command or remotely through the app. Since the Astro can’t go up or down stairs, Amazon expects most people to place it on the main floor of their home.
Amazon says all of the processing and storage for these maps happens locally on the device. Then a “portion of that data is sent securely to the cloud” so that you can tell the Astro where to go using the smartphone app. The Astro can only be paired to a single phone at a time — a security measure to help prevent unauthorized access or use. Similarly, its facial recognition data is also stored locally on the Astro.
Between the sensors on the front of the robot are a couple of two-inch speakers. There’s also a passive resonator on the bottom to improve bass output. These can get quite loud when playing music, and since the Astro can literally follow you around and always move itself to the optimal position, you’re almost always going to be able to hear it well.
To make up for its diminutive size, the Astro has a 12-megapixel periscope camera that can raise up to 42 inches high, enough to see over a typical counter or table. This camera can be used for video calls or viewed through the accompanying phone app to see what’s happening inside your home when you’re not there. Surrounding the telescoping pole are the far-field mics that are used to pick up voice commands.
Around back is a small payload area, capable of carrying 4.4lbs (2kg) of cargo. By default, this area has an insert with two cupholders, but that can easily be swapped for a basic bin. Amazon envisions this area to be something third parties will take advantage of and for which they’ll design accessories. There’s a 15-watt USB-C port in the payload area that you can use to charge your phone, but the real utility of that is for accessories to plug into. Amazon’s executives spoke of a blood pressure cuff that will utilize it, though I wasn’t able to see that in person.
Like a robot vacuum (again), the Astro has a charging dock to which it can automatically attach itself. Charging the battery from zero to 100 takes about 45 minutes and it can go for about two hours of motion between charges. The Astro is designed to manage its battery life on its own — if it needs to recharge, it will just go to its dock by itself — but you can also tell it to do so by voice commands, through the touchscreen or in the app. The internal battery is located under the payload area and can be replaced when it no longer holds a charge, but it’s not designed to be changed frequently.
The brains of the Astro are Qualcomm chips, not the Amazon-designed AZ2 processor that’s in the new Echo Show 15. The company says it used Qualcomm silicon here because of the Astro’s long development time. Like its maps, all of the Astro’s processing and movements happen locally — for privacy reasons but also for practicality. A cloud-based system wouldn’t be able to respond as quickly when the Astro needs to navigate around an unfamiliar obstacle.
For those interested, the Astro’s functionality is built on top of Fire OS and Linux. Amazon isn’t announcing an official Astro SDK today, but it says, “it’s easy to imagine a world where customers and developers can build unique capabilities that allow Astro to keep getting better over time, and we look forward to sharing more details in the future.”
The Astro’s design isn’t particularly beautiful or elegant — its utilitarian looks seem to be driven more by functionality than emotion. Amazon executives told me many different form factors and designs were tested and this shape is what they’ve landed on for now. But the design is not offensive or intimidating either, something that is important to get right if people are going to accept a largely autonomous robot in their homes.
Trying to wrap your head around how all of those features and capabilities together might be useful in your home can be a challenge. Amazon envisions a handful of use cases — home security monitoring, remote elder care, and convenience — but it also readily admits that there could be more that just haven’t been found yet.
That first use case is perhaps the most obvious one. The Astro can integrate with Ring’s security alarm system and function much like a Ring camera. It can capture video clips of events and send them to Ring’s cloud, and it can also automatically go to the site of a disturbance, if say a Ring motion or door sensor goes off when you’re not home. You can also program it to make autonomous patrols on a schedule, or direct it manually to go check something out through the Astro app. It’s not unlike the pitch for the Ring Always Home Cam drone.
Remote monitoring of your home is perhaps where the Astro’s periscope camera is most useful. You can tell it to raise the camera to see over a counter or obstacle and switch between the periscope camera and the camera mounted above the screen easily. Amazon’s execs were eager to tell me how useful it is to check if the oven was left on when you aren’t home. The Astro also has Alexa Guard integration, allowing it to alert you to sounds of a broken window or smoke alarm, just like an Echo speaker.
Amazon also envisions the Astro as being useful for remote monitoring of elderly relatives. Thanks to its ability to recognize faces, it can look for an elderly person and provide status notifications to their caregivers. Routines can be programmed where it will remind the person to take medication or check their blood pressure when they need to; the Astro’s ability to find them means that it can deliver this reminder even if they aren’t in the same room as it. The Astro will also be integrated into the new Alexa Together service, which provides access to an emergency helpline and support for fall detection devices.
Lastly, Amazon sees the Astro as the next level of how Alexa can integrate into your home. Though the Astro’s wake word for voice commands is “Astro” (by default, it can be changed to Alexa, Echo, or Computer, but sadly not Artoo), the intelligence underpinning it all is Alexa. The Astro is effectively an Echo Show on wheels — you can ask it to follow you around as you do things; have it play music or podcasts while you’re doing chores; ask it to set reminders, timers, or take a photo; use it for video calling through Alexa’s calling service; and do all the other things an Echo Show can do. The software on the screen itself is effectively lifted right off the Echo Show, too.
The Astro’s ability to recognize faces means it knows who it’s looking at and can play a greeting or turn on your favorite music when it sees you. It’s designed to learn your habits, so if you end up using it most of the time in the kitchen, it will park itself there.
Amazon has also built more personality into the Astro than we’re used to from Alexa. It will move its body, change the shape of its eyes, and adjust its screen to express attention or emotions. You can ask it to do silly things like dance, and it moves around in a way that’s meant to make it easy to tell where it’s going, when it’s going to turn, and so on. Amazon says that beta testers claimed the Astro’s personality made it feel more like a part of their home than a smart speaker or other gadget; it will surely draw comparisons to the Jibo robot that engendered similar attachments.
For all of the things that the Astro can do, however, there’s a laundry list of things it can’t. In a demo of the device ahead of its official announcement, I was able to see Astro perform a variety of tasks, such as go to a specific room, find a particular person, take a photo, and so on. I was able to ask it to follow me around as I walked from one room to another; it had no trouble navigating around random obstacles that ended up in its path.
But as mentioned, it can’t go outside; it can’t go up or down stairs; it has no arms or appendages to open doors or cabinets; and it can’t help you move or get up if you’ve fallen down. Sure, it can deliver an ice cold beer to a specific person, but someone still has to get the beer out of the fridge and put it in the back of the Astro before telling it where to go. It can show you that the oven was left on, but it has no ability to press the buttons itself to turn it off.
The Astro’s competition will be software assistants as much as other robots
It also doesn’t do a lot of assistant-type things that software is already starting to handle. There’s no ability for it to answer your phone and deal with telemarketers (something Google Pixel phones are already doing) or have it work with your doctor’s office to schedule your next appointment. The Astro can tell you when someone’s rung the doorbell, but it can’t go ahead and sign for that package.
Amazon, for its part, is clear-eyed about the Astro’s limitations. That’s part of the reason why it’s releasing it with a limited, invite-only system before launching it to the public. The company told me that things like robot arms and other appendages could certainly unlock many more capabilities, but right now the cost is too great to make them practical or accessible. There’s also the problem of what people will be comfortable with in their home at this stage — the Astro’s current design isn’t a huge leap from a robot vacuum, but add a bunch of R2-D2-like grabber arms and the ability to open doors and people might start getting uncomfortable.
That’s why, as it functions right now, the Astro feels more like an artificial pet than a true robotic assistant. It can do some tricks, provide some entertainment, and help out a little bit here and there, but it’s far from the kind of robots that science fiction has conditioned us to expect. Even the Astro’s insistence on putting itself in the best position for you to see and hear it (a couple feet in front of you, screen tilted up toward you) is undeniably similar to a dog begging for some scratches behind the ears or a piece of jerky. It’s hard not to find the thing just a little bit endearing as a result.
Amazon is convinced that everyone will have a robot of some sort in their home in the next five to ten years. The Astro is the company’s attempt to get out ahead of the field, before it’s too crowded with competitors. (It used this exact same approach to great success with the Echo.) It’s also only the first of its attempts at putting a robot in your home, and given the company’s nearly endless resources, it doesn’t need the Astro to be a huge sales success to keep developing on this idea. The introductory price of $999.99 includes a six-month trial of Ring Protect Pro, though Amazon says its price will go up to $1449.99 once it reaches broader release.
Many questions about the Astro remain unanswered for now
The question for all of us then, is how much do we want to be testing Amazon’s ideas and experiments in our most intimate of spaces? The company has done a lot to mitigate privacy concerns with the Astro’s local processing, but it can’t possibly know every way someone will feel their personal space violated by a robot in their home until it’s already there. That’s why it needs to do larger-scale testing than it’s able to do in secret.
I’m also curious to see how it reacts and behaves in a real-world environment, outside of Amazon’s beta testers. How’s it going to function when a toddler decides it’d be fun to sit on the back and ride it? How will a real-life dog deal with this robotic interloper in its domain? Can it avoid dog poop? How useful will it actually be when it’s limited to just one floor of a multistory home? How much convenience can it really add beyond the smart speakers that are already in my home?
Those answers will have to wait until we’re able to spend more time with the Astro and push its capabilities first hand. Until then, we’ll have to be content with dreams of robotic dogs.
Photography by Dan Seifert / The Verge
Correction, 2:40PM ET, Tuesday, September 28th: An earlier version said the maps of a home that the Astro creates are never sent to the cloud. That is incorrect — Amazon says a “portion” of the mapping data is stored in the cloud for remote access via the phone app.
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By Dan Seifert, an editor overseeing The Verge’s product reviews and service journalism programs. Dan has covered the technology world for over a decade at The Verge.