Multinational technology giant Amazon has broken new ground in domestic robotics by releasing Astro in September, 2021. Described by the company as “Alexa on wheels,” the Astro device moves around the home autonomously. Marketing for the new devices refers to it as the first domestic robot ever introduced to the consumer market.
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Astro is embedded with various sensors, including cameras and motion sensors, a microphone, and a rotating screen that displays digital eyes when not in use. The artificial intelligence (AI) that powers Astro robots is the same system that makes Alexa smart, giving both devices the same “brain.”
The new robot was designed for various duties around the home. It moves around performing its tasks safely, programmed to immediately stop whatever it is doing whenever somebody walks or crawls in front of it.
Entertainment functions are covered with the speakers and screen, which connect to popular apps for playing music, podcasts, videos, television, and movies.
It can monitor the house while it is unoccupied or when children or other household members requiring more supervision and care are at home. It can also receive video calls and find the person in the house that is being called.
The robot was also designed to look after companion animals that have to stay in the house alone.
The device is synchronized with Amazon-owned Ring’s Protect Pro service. The software-as-a-subscription (SaaS) product provides automated home security for its customers. Astro can work alongside Ring services by detecting disturbances and unrecognized people in the house and sending alerts to the residents as necessary.
Astro is a true Internet-of-Things (IoT) device, and can be controlled remotely from anywhere through a mobile app.
The robot was also carefully designed to have as much relatable personality as possible, without overshooting familiarity and ending up in the uncanny valley – the resting ground of robotics that were too weird to be accepted.
A wide range of expressions and movements is at Astro’s disposal, giving it a greater illusion of natural responses and interactions with the environment it shares with humans.
In demonstrations, the robot was asked to beatbox. As well as making the sounds required, it also bopped its head and made expressions while “humming” beats.
An extendable periscope-like camera increases Astro’s image sensing abilities to a human scale. The otherwise short robot would be unable to see over tables and countertops, but the periscope camera enables it to check if gas hobs were left on, for example.
Amazon claims privacy concerns have been effectively addressed in the development of Astro. Out-of-bounds zones can be programmed to prevent the robot from entering certain areas, either at specific do not disturb times or at any time.
Buttons to turn cameras and microphones off are prominent in the device’s controls, although these result in the robot being unable to move.
The robot will retail at $999.99 initially and is expected to be a big seller on the consumer electronics market.
Astro in the Market
The launch of Astro reflects Amazon’s overall strategic push towards leading in home automation technologies. The market NASDAQ recently published analysis by Zacks Equity Research indicates that Astro is well poised to provide a first-mover advantage for Amazon in home automation.
The market for household robots is expected to boom in the next few years, exceeding $8.5 billion by 2025. This would come from an enormous compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 15.5%.
A separate report indicates an even greater CAGR of 17.4% in the broader robotics market between 2021 and 2026. That would value the robotics market in total at $74.1 billion by 2026.
Amazon’s Astro launch puts the company in a good position to capitalize on this sector's exceptional market growth forecast.
The Next Generation of Domestic Robots
Of course, Amazon is not the only company seeking a first-mover advantage in the world of domestic, consumer robotics. Indeed, depending on the definition of a domestic robot and how much autonomous behavior it must exhibit, there may have been as many as 16.3 million service robots in operation by 2018.
But Amazon’s Astro robot is a step in front of existing technology. Close competitors in this sector include iRobot, Teradyne, and Brooks Automation.
iRobot is a forerunner in terms of domestic robotics. The company’s products include Roomba Vacuums, Braava Mops, and Terra Mows, all of which have found their place in the consumer market.
Teradyne, which recently bought out Universal Robots, is most well known for its range of cobots (collaborative robots) intended to work with humans on industrial processes.
Brooks Automation is widely regarded as an industry leader in vacuum robots, atmospheric robotics, modules, and automated semiconductor manufacturing.
Amazon is also growing its presence in the robotics market. Recent acquisitions of Canvas Technology and Kiva Systems speak to the company’s long-term investment in this sector.
Continue reading: Household Robotics: Enabling Innovation or Promoting Domestic Detachment?
References and Further Reading
International Federation of Robotics (2019) Executive Summary World Robotics 2019. Service Robots. [online] Available at: https://ifr.org/downloads/press2018/Executive_Summary_WR_Service_Robots_2019.pdf.
Molloy, D. (2021). Amazon announces Astro the home robot. BBC. [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-58727057.
Zacks Equity Research (2021). Amazon (AMZN) Boosts Robotics Efforts With Astro Launch. NASDAQ. [online] Available at: https://www.nasdaq.com/articles/amazon-amzn-boosts-robotics-efforts-with-astro-launch-2021-09-29.