Amazon ended its late-year event with a surprise announcement: Astro, a new robot that’s essentially a tablet on wheels with enough cameras to host a video chat and map your home. It is Amazon’s next big venture to get into your home, serve your needs, and make its devices indispensable in your daily life.
Astro is the type of ‘one more thing’ that we would expect from more seasoned consumer tech companies – see the LG Rolling Bot in 2016 and the Samsung Ballie in 2020. While both were pitched to fill similar roles of patrolling homes, notifying users of unusual events, and taking notes, neither advanced beyond the concept stage.
Based on its listed features, the Astro bot, which Amazon appears to have begun developing in 2018, appears to be more capable than the others: it will follow you around as a mobile video chat platform, livestream footage to your mobile app from afar, patrol the home and investigate disturbances, and likely serve as a mobile Alexa station. We’ll see how the actual units perform when they arrive at testers near the end of 2021, and whether there’s a lot to gain from a vacuum-sized ‘bot wheeling around underfoot to answer questions and wander your home.
Astro, on the other hand, serves a clear purpose for Amazon: to further embed its services in the home. During Amazon’s event, there was no new Echo speaker introduced, only a new wall-mounted Amazon Echo Show 15 product, indicating that the company sees Astro as the way to service consumers now that Echoes have saturated the market.
The main service associated with Astro is the existing Ring Protect Pro, without which the ‘bot cannot perform autonomous patrols and ‘intelligent investigation’ of suspicious activity, nor can it save videos to Ring cloud storage for up to 60 days. Another service, Alexa Guard, uses Astro to detect and alert users to sounds of smoke, carbon monoxide alarms, or glass breaking.
If you aren’t a member of either (the Astro comes with a six-month subscription to Ring Protect Pro), you can still manually control the robot via the mobile app and livestream footage from the included cameras. However, for the $999 ‘Day 1 edition’ test group price, you’re probably going to want the full set of features.
While Amazon will have a difficult time justifying such high prices, there are some things the Astro can do that the Echo or Echo Show cannot. However, they are all situational and, for the time being, theoretical, as the product has little competition in terms of functional consumer-facing assistant robots.
While a network of Echos could handle assistant duties as well, Astro can follow its owner around to set reminders and deliver messages, calls, and other communications – which may be more convenient coming from a nearby screen-equipped robot rather than talking through verbal commands or walking over to an Echo Show.
But the big pitch is for security: with that Ring Protect Pro subscription, you can set up Astro to map your home and patrol for disturbances or strangers using its cameras and microphones. It certainly appears to have the potential to comfort people who are away from home, especially with Astro’s live camera feed for checking on pets. You can also save footage for up to 60 days if you are concerned that your living space will be targeted by robbers.
And there’s another subscription service that hasn’t yet hit the market that Amazon announced at a recent event: Alexa Together, to which Astro is linked in some way. While details are scarce, this service is described as assisting users in remotely caring for aging loved ones, and it’s possible Astro could act as a go-between for younger caregivers to set up reminders and video chat with those in their care.
Amazon is pitching Astro as a personal assistant who can make everyone’s life a little easier – all they have to do is give it access to their home and let it listen in on everything. However, because cameras and motion sensors are required for Astro to move at all, it’s an all-or-nothing proposition if you want the robot to perform the majority of its functions.