Last May, Lily Robotics was a five-person startup tucked into a garage behind a crowded and run-down hacker hostel in Atherton, Calif. Its young cofounders, Antoine Balaresque and Henry Bradlow, were fresh out of the University of California, Berkeley. Their vision—to build something that looked a lot like a drone, but functioned as a flying camera, no piloting skills required. At the time, I profiled them as the quintessential Silicon Valley startup—long on enthusiasm and short on cash, and described their technical approach: multiple on-board cameras with independent microcontrollers and a video processor to guide and stabilize the craft as well as to shoot videos.
This month, I checked in on Lily. In spite of a few technical bumps in the road, the company is flying high.
In December, Lily announced that it had closed an investment round of $15 million, mostly from Spark Capital, but also from individual angels including musician Steve Aoki and former quarterback Joe Montana. This month, the company reported $34 million in pre-sales (at $499 to $799, the company has been steadily ramping up its preorder price to move towards its planned $999 list price). Lily now has nearly 40 employees, and has moved to a large office in San Francisco’s South of Market district, a couple of blocks from Pinterest. Among the new hires, said Lily’s current head of communications, Kelly Coyne, are Doug Chan, former head of camera operations at Nest Labs and vice president of operations at Dropcam, and a manufacturing team that worked together on the Flip Video cameras and the Dropcam.
The company has already built 500 flying cameras and put most into the hands of beta testers. Early feedback shows that the cameras are being used far less for action sports than for taking videos of family and pets, Coyne said. (That is good news for Lily, because the pet video market is a lot bigger than the action sports market.)
The company, she said, has also been surveying pre-order customers. “Almost all of them,” Coyne said, “are first-time drone users who would never buy a drone. They are seeing this as a flying camera, something they are much more willing to incorporate in their lives.”
Those technical glitches? They’ve involved the software, mostly the flight controls. “Making something that is following you around taking video that is perfect and seamless when you move left and right, or stop or jump, takes a lot of work to get perfect,” Coyne said. In a letter to its pre-order customers explaining that the products would ship this summer instead of in February, as originally planned, the company said “We hit roadblocks with our flight software. Component optimizations required us to redesign core parts of our flight software to achieve smoother and more stable flight.” The statement also indicated that the company discovered it needed to add a sonar sensor for flight stability. (The original sensor list included an accelerometer, a gyroscope, a barometer, a magnetometer, and a GPS device, but stabilization was mostly done using downward looking cameras and image processing.) And Lily discovered it needed to upgrade the hardware it had been using for image processing to better track the subject being photographed.
With all this going on the founders have been busy—but not too busy to move out of that hacker hostel to more comfortable housing closer to Lily’s new office (though Coyne admits that Bradlow just moved into a nicer hacker hostel.)
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.