Amazon Astro Robot will have superior obstacle avoidance ability
Amazon today announced Astro, a useful and adorable little robot for use around the house. It was arguably the most polarizing ad at Amazon’s fall event. Unlike many other devices that we call “robots”, Astro is truly a robot. He navigates the house alone and even has a sort of personality. Artificial facial expressions almost guarantee that some level of bonding is going to take place.
We have pointed out countless times how many robot vacuum cleaners today fail to avoid obstacles inside the house. Navigation and collision avoidance are also a challenge for robotic lawn mowers. However, Amazon promises efficient navigation through the house with Astro, and I have to say that I think it will live up to it. I have no doubt that Astro will move easily around your household, especially given the in-game navigation technologies, namely SLAM (Simultaneous Locate and Mapping).
Astro can “see” your house
Despite the big eyes on his screen, Astro doesn’t really see what’s in front of him, at least not the way you might think. SLAM technology allows Astro to detect walls and obstacles in front of it, even those that weren’t there moments before.
It is not untested technology. Some robot vacuums use this technology to navigate around the house (although some of them use lidar instead.) The ability to detect new objects and dodge around them means Astro can be used in a child’s playroom. Even the toys scattered around don’t interfere with its navigation, although I can’t imagine a Lego rolling inside to be good for Astro. Can robots get heartburn?
Astro will also be able to recognize family members through another feature called Visual ID. This means Astro can look for a specific family member to deliver a message or even deliver a package if you’ve placed something in their safe.
SLAM technology works by tracking specific points through multiple successive images using a single 3D camera, but multiple cameras can provide a deeper perception. This is one of the reasons that robot vacuums that use SLAM technology are often more effective at avoiding obstacles in their path. We know Astro has multiple cameras, although it’s not clear how many are still facing the front, but there is at least one additional telescopic camera on top of the device.
Astro can learn your house
There is plenty of evidence that Astro will learn your home layout as well. Since the user can define “out of bounds” areas where Astro cannot go, this implies the existence of some sort of intelligent mapping function. If you manually place Astro inside one of these areas, it will immediately try to exit.
Astro processes much of its information on the device, which means it does not need Wi-Fi to work. The lack of Wi-Fi does not mean that Astro will no longer be able to navigate intelligently; in fact, this feature allows it to change direction faster and respond to new inputs because it does not introduce additional lag while waiting for a signal to return from the cloud.
The robot has active and passive braking capabilities. If an animal runs in front of Astro, it will stop without being told. This rapid response is not just a safety feature – it indicates how quickly Astro can process information and respond to obstacles.
If Astro can handle the sudden appearance of a pet or child, surely he can easily navigate around a table leg. The device also incorporates other sensors, but the technical details have not yet been released.
According to Amazon, you can send Astro to verify specific parts and people. It can even operate in patrol mode where it walks around the house looking for trouble, and can also respond to unusual sounds like broken glass or the beep of a smoke detector.
Learning about your home isn’t just about furnishing. A device like this must also know the household. Astro can learn who is supposed to be home and send alerts if he sees an unknown person.
With the periscope camera on top of Astro, you can check things on your counters or use it to make sure you’ve turned the stove off. Amazon has shown that Astro moves with this camera deployed, but the robot will not move if the camera is deployed beyond its lowest setting.
Seeing is believing
With all of this in mind (the proven effectiveness of SLAM technology, on-board processing and Astro’s fast response times), I’m confident this little robot will be able to avoid obstacles. Its bigger wheels mean it’s not likely to get tangled on threads either. While only time will tell, I can’t wait to see how this robot pushes the boundaries of home boating. Perhaps the effects will trickle down even to more efficient robot vacuums and mops.