Amazon’s Astro is the latest in a growing line of real-world robots


Who’s a good robot?

Screenshot by HDOT

Hello, Astro.

Amazon introduced an entry in the contest for the cutest home robot, taking the wraps off a rolling droid that vaguely resembles a mechanical puppy at its fall event on Tuesday. Astro, its creators said in a slick video, incorporates Amazon’s AI technology and is powered by the Alexa voice assistant. It also sports a detachable cupholder, because who wants the hassle of actually carrying a Big Gulp? 

The giant e-tailer saved Astro until the end of its hour-long event, which included updates to Echo, Ring and other smart home products. But the robot, which can map your home and serve as a not-terribly-fearsome watchdog, was clearly the showstopper.

Astro isn’t offered for general purchase at the moment, but Amazon has opened a waiting list for those anxious to get the little fella. The robot will be available later this year and costs $1,000. (UK and Australian prices weren’t announced, but that’s about £740 or AU$1,380.) If you don’t get one this time around, keep the faith. Amazon says an Astro 2 is already in the works.

Robots are an alluring idea and have captured human imagination for more than a century. If you don’t want to get in line for Astro, here are some robots you can think about:

Tesla Bot

Unlike Astro, Elon Musk’s Tesla Bot seems like little more than an attention grab. The humanoid robot, unveiled at the electric car company’s AI Day last month, is supposed to be a humanoid robot that uses artificial intelligence to take over mundane tasks for people. The sort-of-single Musk says the bot will sport autopilot cameras and will be able to lift 150 pounds.

Musk suggested the robot, which isn’t at prototype stage yet, could handle “dangerous, repetitive, boring” jobs like going to the store to buy groceries. That’s a mundane task and one that could be considered dangerous, assuming you’re prone to buying half gallon tubs of ice cream.

“Essentially, in the future, physical work will be a choice,” Musk said during the presentation at Tesla’s AI Day. “If you want to do it, you can, but you won’t need to do it.”

Musk said he hoped for a Tesla Bot prototype next year, but it’s anyone’s guess when you’ll run into one at your local Safeway. The Tesla Bot we saw at AI Day was just a skinny dude in a weird onesie. (Remember: Musk has also told us we’re going to Mars, but no one’s brought back a souvenir snow globe yet.) 

Robot vacuums

Speaking of repetitive and boring tasks, the best established robot product line probably is for models that’ll clean your floors. iRobot started the trend with its Roomba line, but now there are plenty of other robot vacuum cleaners and floor moppers.

Makers of robot vacuum cleaners include iRobot, Eufy, Samsung and others.

Delivery bots

Bots are coming… to your door. Around the world, companies are experimenting with robots that deliver directly to customers.

In Berkeley, California, a fleet of cute Kiwibots stirred up attention as they cruised the streets with meals for the city’s students. They also rankled residents. One man upset by their presence botnapped one of the machines, which police tracked with GPS.


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♬ Picture Me Rollin – Chamillionaire

No surprise, Amazon is in the delivery bot space. The company began its Scout delivery bot program two and a half years ago not far from its Seattle headquarters. Last month, Amazon said it was establishing a Scout R&D center in Helsinki. Google, Postmates and other companies are also working on robotic delivery services.

Starship Technologies delivery bot

A Starship Technologies delivery bot on a sidewalk in London.

Starship Technologies

Mall cops

Robots can help with security and policing, at least in the eyes of companies selling the products, and you might see a real-world RoboCop in some parts of the world. Dubai is using a Pal Robotics creation as a police bot in malls and tourist areas. People can use it to get information, pay fines and report crimes.

Security is one of the first markets for Boston Dynamics, a company with some of the most eye-catching robots around. Its backflip-capable humanoid Atlas robots are probably the closest thing to a Tesla Bot so far, but the product that the company is selling today is the doglike Spot Mini.

Spot Mini didn’t fare well in New York City, though. The New York Police Department scrapped a contract for robot police dogs after criticism from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other public concerns.

Telepresence robots

Even before COVID-19 wiped out business travel, some companies were arguing that you can save a bundle on airplane tickets if you make a virtual appearance at a remote site using a telepresence robot from a company like Double Robotics, which puts an iPad on a stalk that you can wheel around an office. Your face appears on the iPad screen so people know who they’re dealing with, and the iPad’s camera beams its view to your screen. Prices start at $4,000.

Double Robotics telepresence robot

Double Robotics telepresence robot.

Stephen Shankland/HDOT

Educational toys

Lots of companies are trying to capitalize on parental hopes that their kid could be the next Elon Musk if only they buy the right educational robot. They might not actually be a fast track to a Carnegie Mellon engineering degree, but they can be fun and instructive.

The 4M Tin Can Robot is a cheap way to get started with mechanical entertainment. The $150 Wonder Workshop Dash robot is already assembled but lets kids control it through basic programming. And the $350 Lego Mindstorms 51515 Robot Inventor kit combines open-ended construction options with programming. If you want more-advanced built-in technology, the $489 Anki Vector has AI voice control and a camera. 

Fresh coffee

What do you get when you cross a factory floor robot with a barista? Cafe X’s Gordon, a robot that makes coffee. They aren’t yet displacing college students working at Starbucks, but you can see one in action at San Francisco International Airport’s Terminal 3.

Warehouse workers

Work in a warehouse or a factory and there’s a good chance you’ll interact with a robot at some point. The machines are cropping up everywhere, including breweries, bakeries and brickworks. 

One company that surrendered to robot overlords long ago: Amazon. In 2014, the giant e-tailer began rolling out Kiva robots at its fulfillment centers, where they whiz around collecting orders and bringing them to a human worker.

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