In a surprise move, Amazon debuted a “home monitoring” Alexa-powered robot that’ll follow you around. While it looked amazing in the short demos we saw, you can’t always trust highly scripted announcement events. If leaked documents are to be believed, Astro might actually be terrible.
According to Vice, which has seen the documents in question, developers who worked on Astro (codenamed Vestra at the time) had some pretty awful things to say about the robot:
Astro is terrible and will almost certainly throw itself down a flight of stairs if presented the opportunity. The person detection is unreliable at best, making the in-home security proposition laughable,” a source who worked on the project said. “The device feels fragile for something with an absurd cost. The mast has broken on several devices, locking itself in the extended or retracted position, and there’s no way to ship it to Amazon when that happens.
That’s just, well, that’s not great. It doesn’t help the overall picture when Vice describes the robot as fragile and easy to break. One of the big “wow” moments for Astro was the telescoping camera, referred to as a mast internally. According to documents, the mast can break and get stuck in the up position. At that point, there’s no way to ship Astro back to Amazon.
Vice’s source goes on to say:
They’re also pushing it as an accessibility device but with the masts breaking and the possibility that at any given moment it’ll commit suicide on a flight of stairs, it’s, at best, absurdist nonsense and marketing and, at worst, potentially dangerous for anyone who’d actually rely on it for accessibility purposes.
Amazon also pitched Astro as an extension to the Ring security system, and with that comes questions surrounding privacy. Astro is supposed to learn faces and then follow people it doesn’t recognize, presumably if they are an intruder. But according to the internal documents, Astro frequently doesn’t recognize people it should know. Astro also needs to recharge every two hours or so, which sounds incredibly hard on its battery.
For its part, Amazon denies that these quotes describe the current state of Astro and implies it may have been true about earlier prototypes. It issues the following statement to The Verge:
These characterizations of Astro’s performance, mast, and safety systems are simply inaccurate. Astro went through rigorous testing on both quality and safety, including tens of thousands of hours of testing with beta participants. This includes comprehensive testing on Astro’s advanced safety system, which is designed to avoid objects, detect stairs, and stop the device where and when necessary.
And it certainly seems possible that the latest version of Astro does solve those problems. But look back at the devices and event, and you’ll notice something. Astro’s “live” entrance onto the stage was very simple. It drove up, stopped, answered a query or two, then drove away. It might also explain why Astro will start as an invite-only purchase and not something just anyone can buy.
Then again, another likely scenario is that the global chip shortage affecting everything from smart home gadgets to self-driving tech is the issue there. We can’t be sure because Amazon didn’t say. The only way we’ll truly know is to get hands-on time with Astro in real-world settings.