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Amazon Says a Wide Release of Astro Home Robot Is Finally ‘in Sight’

(Bloomberg) -- Amazon.com Inc.’s Astro robot, unveiled with fanfare last year but then shipped in very low quantities, should be more widely available within the coming months, the company’s devices chief said.

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Amazon is still working out kinks related to Astro’s ability to map and navigate customers’ homes, said Dave Limp, a senior vice president who leads its devices and services group. For now, the robots are only available by invitation, and they remain a rare sight outside of Amazon.

But general availability of the bot “is not a year away,” Limp said in an interview. He said it would likely be sooner but was reluctant to predict a date. “I think we’re close,” he said. “I do think we have a little bit to solve. But it’s in sight.”

Despite remaining a work in progress, Astro had a starring role in Amazon’s new-device event on Wednesday, when the company said it was looking to turn the robot into a security guard for businesses. The announcement was part of a flurry of product news, including the debut of a sleep-tracking gadget and a Kindle e-reader that lets users write on digital pages.

Amazon’s Ring division also announced a pair of new home-security cameras and other updated devices. Ring’s Spotlight Cam Pro -- the most significant new Ring hardware introduced at the event -- will get radar-based cameras to enable 3D motion detection and a bird’s-eye view. These features previously were included in Ring’s high-end doorbells to give a better picture of the surrounding environment, but will now be more affordable.

Regardless of Astro’s fate, home robots are poised to become a bigger part of Amazon’s lineup. The company announced plans in August to buy Roomba maker IRobot Corp. for $1.65 billion. That deal still needs regulatory approval from governments around the world, but Limp told Bloomberg Television on Wednesday he was optimistic about getting the transaction done.

With a $1,000 price tag, rising to $1,450 after an introductory period, the Astro robot is likely to remain more of a niche product than Amazon’s Kindles or Echo smart speakers. But Limp and his team discussed plans for a wider release this week, he said, and they just want to shore up its navigational powers before Amazon offers the bot to all comers. Astro can still get confused in rare room setups, such as areas with floor-to-ceiling glass near a mirror, he said.

Limp said that Amazon had originally hoped to ship its first Astro units to invited customers before the end of 2021. Supply-chain constraints prevented that from happening until the end of January or February, he said.

Packing Astro with sensors and four processors made it powerful enough to reassure Amazon engineers it wouldn’t tumble down stairs. But that also made the product more susceptible to supply shortages. “In many ways, we overbuilt the hardware there,” Limp said.

More broadly, supply-chain constraints have eased after a difficult stretch, Limp said on Bloomberg Television. “I don’t think we are through it,” he said, “but I can start seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Hundreds of thousands of people have requested invitations to purchase an Astro, Limp said, adding that he’s not sure how many of those queries will turn into actual sales.

Initial reviewers and some customers said the device, which looks a bit like a tablet on wheels strapped to a cup holder, was charming but lacked must-have features. Limp said his teams are working to pack more personality into Astro’s responses to questions.

Limp said he also was surprised by the strong demand for the device from businesses. That’s what led Amazon’s Ring division to see Astro’s potential as a security guard.

As part of a pilot project, Ring is expanding its security monitoring service to tap into Astro’s capabilities. The robot could potentially investigate alerts, observe scenes with its cameras and notify Ring-contracted security centers in instances when the police may need to be called. Ring plans to test the service in the coming months with a small group of businesses.

Amazon acquired Ring in 2018 and has turned the group into a key piece of its hardware business. Beyond enlisting Astro, it’s building more intelligence and capabilities into its security equipment.

New radar technology will allow Ring’s Spotlight Cam Pro cameras to better measure the distance of an object and more accurately trigger alerts. That addresses a complaint of some Ring owners, who have said that current cameras and motion sensors can set off false alarms.

The radar system will allow the camera to more accurately pinpoint specific objects or tell whether a human is in the frame. And the bird’s-eye view feature shows an overhead picture of movements picked up by Ring devices.

Amazon will sell a battery-powered version of the Spotlight Cam Pro for $230, with a solar model costing $250. The Spotlight Cam Plus, a lower-end alternative priced at $200, is getting a new design as well and will launch in the coming months, the company said. Ring’s latest panic button, a device that can be carried around or mounted on a wall, is cheaper than the previous model. It will cost $30, down from $35.

Some of Amazon’s innovations can take a while to catch on -- if at all. Ring announced a flying indoor drone two years ago, but it’s still only available in limited quantities.

(Updates with details on Amazon Astro availability beginning in the first paragraph.)

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