What initially appeared to be a highly innovative, waterproof and intelligent camera drone has disappeared before ever shipping a single unit. “Lily,” which raised some $34 million in advance orders, is grounded. People who had pre-ordered the product received the news via email today from co-founders Antoine Balaresque and CTO Henry Bradlow.
“When Lily set out on the journey to create a flying camera over 3 years ago,” reads the message, “we were determined to develop and deliver a product that would exceed your expectations.”
The past year, it reads, has been filled with many “ups and downs” – including the company’s failure to secure additional financing that it says would have allowed the firm to “unlock our manufacturing line and ship our first units…
“As a result, we are deeply saddened to say that we are planning to wind down the company and offer refunds to customers.”
When it was first announced, the Lily Camera grabbed a lot of attention and money. It was billed as a flying camera that required virtually no skill to operate, and that could track users and take HD video and high-resolution stills.
It also looked incredibly simple to operate: Simply throw it in the air and it would start hovering and following whoever was holding the tracker/camera device. Here’s the video that started it all:
To its credit – and also perhaps its demise – Lily kept the money sent by backers separate from the roughly $15 million it raised in venture capital. Unlike crowd-funded projects (some of which have failed spectacularly) the money sent in by purchasers was held in escrow by a company called TILT.
But some backers started to get concerned well before today’s announcement. One was Canadian technologist Michael Walker – a licensed private pilot who was first building quads long before any ready-to-fly versions were available.
Walker, 58, saw the video and plunked down $500 US at the start of the campaign. It was the video that sold him.
“I jumped all over it,” he says. “As a professional photographer, I was always looking for a unique perspective. Lily was able to possibly fulfill that.” (Walker is also an avid skier – and the video features those great skiing shots – which some say were actually shot using a DJI Phantom.)
At the time he ordered it, there really wasn’t a drone like it. Walker was also drawn to the intelligent tracking features that helped make Lily stand out from other drones of the day. Thus began the long wait – during which other, more advanced drones started being released.
Walker watched as DJI released product after product, including most recently the Phantom 4, the Mavic Pro, Phantom 4 Pro and Inspire 2 – and started to get concerned. Suddenly the Lily technology didn’t look quite so much ahead of its time.
There was also a pretty curious Instagram post, which left a lot of people wondering if the Lily could deliver.
“It was in mid-November of 2016. We’re into the fourth version of the Phantom and the second version of the Inspire – and those products just work out of the box. They’re amazing products,” he says. (Walker owns an Inspire and a Phantom 2.)
“And I started to think about it for a moment and realized that these guys were now dealing with year-and-a-half-old technology in terms of sensors and stuff, and I don’t know if they had changed it,” he says.
He decided then: “It’s time to bail.”
The process took Walker well over a month, partly because the credit card he had used to make the purchase had been replaced by a new one with a different number. He says he pushed Lily repeatedly for a refund, offering other options such as sending a check or using PayPal.
Finally, and with growing frustration, he contacted TILT directly. Then, he says, he received his refund within 20 minutes. He was, of course, relieved to get his money. But he also believes the people behind Lily were never out to cheat anyone.
“I don’t think they had really ever misled anybody to be honest; I think they were honorable people,” he says. “They had always said: ‘If at any time you want your money back just ask, it’s being held in a separate account and not being used for production’.”
Although the failure is being widely reported now, the UK-based website www.droningon.co, run by editor Ash Ha, had been pushing Lily’s founders for some time for answers. In fact, he tells TDC he was banned from Lily’s Facebook group for raising some sensible questions.
“In February 2016 I was booted from the Lily group for asking constructive technical questions of the Lily team,” he wrote in an instant message exchange. “For example, how will they cater for overheating of the internally air-tight secured battery?”
He also points out that when a Lily prototype was demonstrated for a select few media outlets, the results were unimpressive – and that there was never any video released that was captured by Lily. This example illustrates the point well:
But there weren’t a whole lot of stories out there ringing the alarm bells.
Three days ago, Ash predicted Lily’s failure in an attempt to get the company’s founders to respond publicly. They responded with silence – until today’s email.
And Ash, who also functions as a consumer advocate, is still pushing.
Refunding For Lily
“The promise of refunds must now be watched carefully,” he writes. “Past failed projects such as Zano have made similar commitments upon collapse but were unable to refund all customers due to administration/bankruptcy requirements to honor business creditor lists as the priority over customers.
“We urge customers to immediately contact credit card companies and their payment providers whilst waiting for their ‘official’ refund. It may also be worth contacting ‘Tilt’, the payment gateway utilized by Lily to collect pre-order funds.”
As for Walker? Lesson learned. In this case – buy from an established manufacturer rather than an unproven company.
“Anybody could make a drone fly reasonably well, I’ve built about six,” he says.
“But I could never make anything that would fly as well as a Phantom would out of the box. Even today, I could take my P2 out of the box and it would fly amazingly.”
TDC is disappointed that the project failed – it looked like it might really have some promise – certainly it did at the time it was announced. But we’re also pleased to see that Lily protected its backers by keeping the pre-order cash separate from the venture capital.
“They did the right thing,” says Walker. “They held the money in trust.”
It’s just a shame this project couldn’t fly.
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