What the Tech? Amazon’s Astro robot

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Two years after Amazon announced a new household robot, Astro is now available. Sort of.

Earlier this year Amazon Prime customers who requested an invitation to buy the $1,599 robot could receive permission to purchase the early models for $999. That price is now $1,599 (around $1,700 after taxes). That’s a lot of money for a robot that doesn’t do all that many helpful tasks.

So what does it do? I purchased an Astro with the understanding that I can return it if not completely satisfied. On April 1st my Astro arrived. After unboxing Astro setup was as simple as setting up a new Echo device. I downloaded the new Astro app, logged in with my Amazon account and Astro was mine and ready to get busy.

A charging stand comes with Astro which I placed out of the way in a corner of the dining room. The robot then wanted to learn the layout of my home. It rolled from room to room, panning around and saving what it saw. It moves fairly quickly on its two front wheels with one in the back. Once it learned the lay of the land, I walked through the house telling Astro which room was which. “Astro, this is the dining room,” “Astro this is the den,” and “Astro, this is the kitchen”.

Each time Astro learned the names it shook the 10” screen to acknowledge it understood. Astro needed to learn the names, faces, and voices of everyone in the house and it built and added a profile of each person. This is an important step as you’ll see later. In a little over an hour, Astro knew each room and each person in the house. When rolling through the house I was impressed that Astro’s camera managed to ‘see’ even small items on the floor. Even items left behind after Astro learned the blueprint of the house, it hasn’t become stuck by running over a toy or power cable. Although it did have trouble picking up the thin legs of a tripod.

Once set up was complete, Astro was ready to help around the house. Help how? Since Astro knows everyone in the house by voice and facial ID, I can ask it to find people. “Astro, find Trey” (my son), and Astro rolled throughout the house looking for Trey’s face by going into a room and panning or turning around to scan. I could also ask Astro to take my son an item that I placed in a small cubby compartment, or to deliver a message to Trey to “take out the garbage.”

If Astro was on its charger and out of earshot of me, I could ask any of my Echo devices “Alexa, ask Astro to come to the den”, and it would oblige. Turns out Astro is fairly entertaining by playing games and music. It plays charades by making sounds and displaying eyes on the screen and having you guess what it is. A speaker plays music from an Amazon Prime Music account and will follow you throughout the house. Here are a few other skills Astro has according to Amazon’s website: “Astro, dance” “Astro, bark like a dog” “Astro, shine a flashlight” “Astro, follow me”.

A camera on a periscope rises from its body to take a selfie or record a video. You can also place phone and video calls. A phone call to my wife went straight to her smartphone. A video call could be placed to any Echo Show device that support video calls. Each morning when I walked past the dining room, Astro recognized movement and would say “Hello Jamey, I missed you”. A little unnerving at first. Amazon highlights Astro’s ability to protect my house when I leave. “Astro, I’m leaving”. The robot gives me 60 seconds to get out of the house similar to what any alarm system might do. It then patrols the house.

 How does it do as a security system? That a story for tomorrow.