Amazon unveils 'science fiction' robot that can patrol homes

Astro is a roughly 60cm tall and 9kg device.
Astro is a roughly 60cm tall and 9kg device.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP, BLOOMBERG) - Amazon revealed a camera-equipped home robot Tuesday (Sept 28) that users can deploy to patrol their houses, a device that one of the project's developers said was making science fiction a reality.

The tech giant cheered the Astro robot as a breakthrough for security and convenience, but digital watchdogs raised concerns for potential risks to people's most private moments at home.

Astro is a roughly 60cm tall and 9kg device that can map out a house floor plan and obey commands to go to a specific place to take a closer look with its telescoping camera.

"Now when you are away, you can use it to proactively patrol your home and investigate activity," Amazon executive Dave Limp said in a product launch clip.

Astro will be sold on an invitation-only basis at an introductory price of US$1,000 (S$1,360). After that, it will cost US$1,500, the company said.

The device, which can work with Amazon's digital home assistant Alexa, can be taught to recognise faces and learn the habits of household members.

Amazon said Astro could also be useful to help remotely check on elderly relatives or deliver reminders for certain activities.

"It's taking science fiction and making it a reality," Mr Suri Maddhula, who worked on the project, said in a video.

Amazon's devices unit has been a frequent target of criticism, from privacy advocates who question the wisdom of always-on microphones in the home, and civil liberties groups alarmed by the partnerships Amazon's Ring smart camera business has with police departments and security practices.

Those doubts have not derailed Amazon’s sales.

Dr Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at digital watchdog group Electronic Frontier Foundation, raised concerns about the Astro robot potentially allowing hackers to see into a user's home or police seeking access to it via a search warrant.

"There are some scenarios in which (Astro) could be useful; there are some scenarios in which a surveillance camera on your house could be useful, too," he told AFP.

"But the problem is that you need to know that it comes off with a trade-off of vulnerability," he added.

Mr Limp, the Amazon senior vice president for devices and services, in a call with journalists said Astro has built-in features to guard against abuses.

He said users can shut down Astro's cameras and microphones, also noting that the device issues a warning sound and message on its display when someone is trying to access the cameras remotely.

"If somebody hacked your account or something, and that could be a bad person obviously, we want to notify anyone that might be at home," he said.

He went on to say that Amazon does not have remote access to the cameras on its machines, and thus "would never allow a police department or a first responder to have access to that device".

Meanwhile, the company has worked to burnish its privacy credentials, offering Alexa users more granular options to delete voice recordings captured by Amazon devices, encrypting videos picked up by Ring, and asking police departments to publicly request footage they want for investigations.

An update announced on Tuesday and coming to some Echo devices will enable processing of user commands on the device itself, removing the need to transmit that data to Amazon's servers.