Teardown: Amazon Astro consumer robot
Image credit: Amazon
Amazon’s consumer robot is at a crossroads as the giant rethinks its Alexa strategy.
You cannot buy the Amazon Astro consumer robot in the UK, even if it is part of that technology giant’s vision for your home and has been on sale for a year. But Astro is a rapidly emerging beta product in the US and merits investigation.
Sales are by invitation only and, should you get one, it’s $1,000 (£814) a cutie, rising eventually to $1,499. And it can be cute. Astro can smile, dance and now – thanks to a new hardware peripheral – chuck treats to your cat or dog while you’re out.
Astro can check for open doors, intruders and appliances you forgot to turn off. If you leave it with an elderly or infirm family member, it can keep an eye on them. Despite the privacy concerns, there are many of us who would find that useful and comforting. To these ends, it can scan an entire floor, but like an old-school (proper) Dalek – well, you know, stairs.
Unlike Daleks, levitation may not be a feature to come, but Astro has already become Amazon’s totem for consumer robotics. That said, despite the September 2022 upgrade, it is also a product at a crossroads.
The upgrade sought to take Astro to a new level with the promise of a software development kit (SDK). It showcased doggy, moggy and other internal fruits of the emerging SDK. It punted the idea of Astro for business, especially SMEs. More of that later.
However, just weeks after Amazon’s latest attempt to boost Astro, bad news. Astro leverages technology from the Alexa home assistant AI programme. Evolving a static Echo to a mobile Astro does make sense.
However, in November we learned that the Worldwide Digital division of which Astro is today a small part lost $3bn in the first quarter of 2022 alone and was to carry a large part of 10,000 planned job cuts. Alexa, Astro’s mum, was mostly responsible. It had not generated enough extra income. And no, I don’t turn to mine to create a shopping list or buy a new USB charger cable. I just want some news or music. It stubbornly remains a smart speaker – albeit a very good one – but not a shop window.
Amazon also doesn’t get enough credit for building consumer products based on reuse that do what most people want of them at lower prices than rivals – its upsell priorities notwithstanding. As the company is obviously rethinking its domestic strategy, you do note that the reuse links between Astro and some of the company’s other hardware products are strong.
The Astro redeploys off-the-shelf (COTS) and internal silicon at its core. To manage the large number of sensors this type of robot requires, there are two main Qualcomm chips: a QCS605 64-bit low-power IoT system-on-chip for intelligent edge applications and an eight-core Snapdragon SDA660 applications processor running at up to 2.2GHz. These are augmented by a jointly developed instance of MediaTek’s MT8512 applications processor incorporating Amazon’s own AZ1 neural edge technology. All these parts have featured in previous Amazon AI products.
Amazon does have a history of designing products that use such COTS components, but which are splattered in glue and other decisions that make them horrible to repair and reassemble. An iFixit teardown has found that Astro is an exception.
Astro is a beta and has perhaps therefore been made easier to access. But given its price, and the presence of some other expensive parts – notably five brushless motors – repairability does seem to have necessarily risen in importance. You don’t just replace robots wholesale if you can avoid it.
Battery replacement is straightforward – there are even screw guides, once you realise it is under the rear caddy (there is no repair guide).
In fact, there are lots of screws and surprisingly few obstacles for an Amazon design. Where stodge turns up, it is often necessary thermal paste.
Key assemblies and boards come out with relative ease, including the coaxial cables controlling Astro’s visual sensors. Often it’s simply a matter of unclipping the covers.
There are clear ‘push’ markings on the wheel assemblies so you can access the housings. This is important if you consider the hairs and detritus something travelling daily across your carpets might pick up – remember, pets. We have all had to clean the wheels on a traditional vacuum cleaner.
One final thought. The Astro is now being marketed to SMEs. It is being offered to them to monitor their business sites, particularly warehouses. Amazon has its own history – some would say chequered – of using automation to monitor its various sites.
Here too, commercial users are demanding when it comes to being able to fix equipment.
After the Alexa cull, is Astro the future of consumer robotics or will Amazon’s genius for reuse find another market? It certainly offers more than a simple speaker, but the company’s new strategy does inevitably place questions over this beta also.
What nevertheless stands out is the Astro design team’s recognition that increased complexity and functionality demands greater accessibility.
Key components: Amazon Astro consumer robot
1. Deserialiser, Analog Devices
2. Memory (DRAM), Samsung
3. Applications processor, MediaTek/Amazon
4. Memory (Flash), Samsung
5. Applications processor, Qualcomm
6. Memory (Flash), Kioxia
7. Memory (DRAM), SK Hynix
8. Wi-Fi/Bluetooth module, MediaTek
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