Amazon launches Astro, a home security and assistance robot

29 Sep 2021

Image: Amazon

The robot was launched at the company’s autumn hardware event and will go on sale in the US later this year, by invitation.

Amazon has announced the launch of Astro, a robot that integrates with its Alexa personal assistant and provides a number of home assistant functions.

The product was revealed at the company’s autumn hardware showcase yesterday (28 September).

Future Human

The robot’s flagship features are in the area of security and family care. It can allow a user to navigate their home remotely to check in on something specific, or patrol the house for unexpected persons or sounds of alarms. It also integrates with services from Ring, Amazon’s smart home security subsidiary.

The Astro can be used to interact remotely with people, via video calling and the ‘drop in’ feature already offered on Alexa devices. Alongside this, Amazon has also launched Alexa Together, an elder care subscription service that works across all its devices.

As well as a screen, cameras and the ability to move around homes autonomously, the Astro also features a periscope camera to allow it to see on top of surfaces or shelves.

When customers are at home, the robot can “follow you from room to room while playing your favourite shows, podcasts, or music”, Amazon said, as well as being used for existing Alexa features such as video or voice calling, and reminders.

Privacy

The company was keen to emphasise that during development of the Astro, “safety features and strong privacy controls needed to be foundational to the device”.

Amazon said the robot’s sensors allow it to avoid obstacles, people and pets, and that users can set zones of their home as out of bounds for the Astro. The robot will then avoid going into these areas, and immediately leave them if picked up and placed there.

In terms of data privacy, the company said Astro does “a lot of the data processing on the device” rather than remotely, and that it features a button to turn off microphones and cameras. Amazon also said that an indicator light on the periscope camera lets users know when video or audio is being sent to the company’s servers.

However, Vice’s Motherboard reported leaked internal documents from Amazon that show developers expressing doubts about the safety of the Astro and shed light on how it provides its security features.

One person at the company reportedly described the robot as “terrible” and said it “will almost certainly throw itself down a flight of stairs if presented the opportunity”.

The same individual, who is said to have worked on the Astro project, went on to say: “The person detection is unreliable at best, making the in-home security proposition laughable. The device feels fragile for something with an absurd cost. The mast has broken on several devices.”

In order to be able to detect unexpected people and events, the Astro requires users to register members of their household and learns about their typical behaviour, according to Vice.

In response to the report, Amazon told the Verge that the characterisations of Astro’s performance, mast and safety systems were “simply inaccurate” and that the robot went through “rigorous testing” for quality and safety.

The Astro will go on sale in the US later in 2021, costing $1,450 and initially available on an invitation-only basis.

Engadget notes that with the release of the Astro and its integration into Ring services, Amazon is showing an increasing focus on the home security market.

The company has come under fire repeatedly for its attitude towards privacy. In August, it was revealed that Amazon was the target of the largest fine under GDPR to date, at €746m.

Jack Kennedy is a freelance journalist based in Dublin

editorial@siliconrepublic.com