The Camera Drone That Flies Itself
BY Alan Perlman19 May 2015
By: David Pierce
HENRY BRADLOW HOLDS an RC controller and a horribly cracked Moto X, but he’s only gripping these devices in case something goes wrong with his demo. When Bradlow, the CTO and co-founder of Lily Robotics, gives the go sign, Nghia Ho, the company’s computer vision engineer, flings a drone straight up into the air. It rises, and then immediately begins to fall. For a split second, it appears as though this 3D-printed prototype with a camera attached is about to shatter into a thousand pieces. But just as the drone starts to descend, Lily’s four rotors flick on. The machine steadies itself in mid-air, then rises about twenty feet and hangs there, awaiting instructions.
Bradlow never once touched the controller, or his phone. That’s the whole point of Lily, the first product from Lily Robotics, a five-person company co-founded by a couple of recent Berkeley grads with funding from Silicon Valley heavy-hitters like Ron Conway. Lily is a self-flying drone that is always following you, following a certain set of commands. It follows a small circular tracker, which you can have in your pocket or on your boat.
Related: 17 Cheap Drones for Beginners
With one tap of the tracker, Lily can execute some nifty camera moves, all while staying focused on you. The camera inside, Bradlow says, is roughly equivalent to the GoPro Hero 3: It can shoot 1080p video, or 720p up to 120 frames per second—there’s some tech inside that will detect when you hit a jump while snowboarding and automatically kick the camera into slow-mo. It’ll also shoot 12-megapixel stills and it can make a cool 360-degree panorama. It can fly 25 miles per hour, is totally waterproof, lasts up to 20 minutes on a charge, and has range up to 100 feet. Bradlow says it could move faster and have more range, but the point isn’t to map agricultural landscapes—it’s to take pictures, or have the Lily chase you down the slopes while you carve some powder.
The Lily’s round tracker can go in your pocket, or in a case on your wrist.
It’s a drone, sure, but mostly it’s a flying camera. And at $499 if you pre-order (or $999 after), it’s a pretty expensive one too. You can tweak the default settings using either the companion app or the small tracker, but you don’t have to know a thing to get it to work. You can’t take over the piloting if you want to—there is no manual mode.
“It’s not the future of drones; it’s more like the future of the point-and-shoot.”
The prototype Bradlow and Ho were demonstrating in a meadow in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park was primitive. It’s too big, for one thing. Bradlow really wants to build a Lily you can carry in your pocket and pull out to take video as easily as you might reach for your phone. There was also a quirk in the firmware that screwed up the height sensors and briefly left the Lily flying a couple of inches off the ground and shooting video mostly of grass. And the app is a website right now, a complicated IP address and a bunch of HTML buttons.
But Lily does work: you hold it in your hand and tap Take Off, or just toss it up into the air, and it floats up and hovers above you. I took a spin, tapping Follow in the app, and Lily chased after Ho as he ran away with the tracker in his hand. I hit Spiral and the Lily spun in a wide circle around Ho, the camera trained on him. The whole time, live video streamed to my phone. It looked good, certainly better than I could have done myself.
Lily’s not a DJI competitor, and it’s not trying to take down the super-powered Solo from 3D Robotics. It’s not complicated, and in a couple of years it won’t be expensive either. It’s not the future of drones; it’s more like the future of the point-and-shoot. And it can get shots your selfie stick couldn’t even imagine.