Local businesses are at the forefront of the developing robotics world

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Perrone Robotics’ Rumbles robots demonstrate its MAX platform, which stands for Mobile Autonomous X. Rumbles integrate sensor and guidance data and make 
decisions based on that data. Photo courtesy of Jackson Smith. Perrone Robotics’ Rumbles robots demonstrate its MAX platform, which stands for Mobile Autonomous X. Rumbles integrate sensor and guidance data and make decisions based on that data. Photo courtesy of Jackson Smith.

For years, Charlottesville has been quietly becoming a leading tech hub in Virginia and on the East Coast. Meet three of the businesses and programs that are spearheading the charge into the growing field of robotics.

Perrone Robotics

Crozet residents are aware that big things are happening in their town. Foremost among these has been Perrone Robotics Inc.’s move to invest in the construction of a new multimillion-dollar downtown complex. While the logistics of the project are still being hashed out—for instance, an estimated $3.15 million in funding for Crozet Plaza, a central park and greenspace, has yet to be secured—in December 2016, PRI struck a deal with developer Milestone Partners and, in early July, cut the red ribbon on a temporary 5,000-square-foot office and testing facility located on the site of the proposed construction. Once the plaza goes in, and surrounding offices, residential apartments and restaurants are installed, Perrone plans to build a permanent office and testing facility.

What’s significant about this move? PRI is bringing top-tier Silicon Valley innovation to the Charlottesville area.

Positioned at the forefront of the autonomous car revolution, PRI is seeking to play a key role nationally and globally in its development and implementation. “It’s not often that you get the opportunity to go to work for a company that’s doing things this exciting, and is located in an area that’s this beautiful,” says Chief Operating Officer Greg Scharer.

For PRI founder Paul Perrone, that’s exactly the point. Contrary to the volatility of the Silicon Valley workplace—where talented employees are constantly jumping ship, chasing the highest bidder—Perrone has built a company culture devoted to long-term stability and family values. “The people that come to work for us are some of the best and brightest in the world,” he says. “We want them to be invested in the company’s future, love where they live and feel confident they can raise their families in this community.” With its proximity to the mountains and Charlottesville, Perrone says Crozet is a perfect fit.

Perrone Robotics CEO Paul Perrone got his start in the field of autonomous vehicles when, in 2004, he entered his first self-driving car, Tommy, into the nation’s most prestigious competition for autonomous vehicles: the DARPA Grand Challenge. Photo courtesy of Jackson Smith.

But what exactly does PRI do?

“A little over 14 years ago, we started building software that makes autonomous cars work,” says Scharer, who explains that PRI’s flagship product MAX—which stands for Mobile Autonomous X—is to autonomous vehicles what Android is to smartphones, or Windows is to computers.

“Basically, it’s a software platform that we use to build other software,” he says. Think of it like a foundation, or set of tools that lets you put together a house more swiftly. Just, in the case of MAX, you’re building software applications. “MAX saves programmers time and energy because they don’t have to rebuild things they’d otherwise have to make over and over again when creating applications, and this capability is what allows for hardware independence.”

Using MAX, PRI can integrate sensors, controls, algorithms, computer platforms and more. In other words, everything you need to run a fully autonomous vehicle.

Growth area

Thirteen years ago, Paul Perrone entered his first self-driving car, Tommy, in the nation’s most prestigious competition for autonomous vehicles: the DARPA Grand Challenge, which is funded by the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (an arm of the U.S. Department of Defense). Back then the company consisted of little more than a makeshift lab in a basement, a couple of volunteers, Tommy and the MAX software platform.

Though Perrone didn’t ultimately take home the $2 million prize, participating in the race paid off in two big ways. First, the grueling 150-mile-long remote and driverless run from Los Angeles to Las Vegas through the Mojave Desert tested MAX’s real-world capabilities. Second, and perhaps more importantly, after being selected as one of just 40 teams to compete in the contest, Tommy’s performance against what Perrone describes as an “infinitely better-funded field” sowed the seeds for PRI’s expansion.

The company quickly became a leader in the then-nascent field of autonomous vehicles. However, for the next 12 years, growth was relatively slow. That all changed last fall when PRI received a large investment from Wind River Systems, a subsidiary of Intel. Although exact amounts were not disclosed, the money came as part of a $38 million package split between 12 tech companies (not necessarily evenly), which senior vice president Wendell Brooks described in a statement as allocated to the world’s most “visionary entrepreneurs developing breakthrough technologies to transform lives and industries.”

“We’re working to become the Microsoft of the autonomous car industry.” Perrone Robotics chief Operating Officer Greg Scharer

According to Perrone, the investment has led to a partnership with Intel, which is enabling PRI to scale up marketing and development for its MAX platform and create new pathways into the global marketplace. “We’ve met with major European auto manufacturers and, while we’re not ready to disclose specifics, we expect to announce a major deal very soon,” says Scharer.

Meanwhile, the company has added a couple new executives, and has grown to 17 employees. The founder of Atari, inventor of Pong, and renown tech start-up guru Nolan Bushnell has joined PRI’s governing board. James Gosling, creator of the Java programming language, recently joined the board of advisers. And starting this year, PRI will add between five and 15 new positions a year for the next five years and may have upward of 120 employees based in Crozet as soon as 2022. “These jobs will be top-tier. We’ll be bringing in highly educated, highly skilled employees,” says Perrone.

According to Scharer, these people bring experience and industry know-how to the table, which he says will be invaluable as the company scales up. “Nolan’s been in the IT industry since the beginning and has a proven record of taking technology in its early stages and creating a productive business around it,” he says. “And James is considered a guru in the coding community—I can’t tell you how great it is to have these guys to bounce ideas around with.”

Considering PRI’s pioneer patent for MAX, and the fact that players such as Google, Uber, Tesla, Volvo, Ford and at least 13 other automakers have committed or implied they’ll make fully autonomous vehicles available by 2020, PRI’s future looks lucrative. According to a study conducted by worldwide management consulting firm Boston Consulting Group, by 2035 “12 million fully autonomous units could be sold a year globally, and the market for partially and fully autonomous vehicles is expected to leap from about $42 billion in 2025 to nearly $77 billion in 2035.”

The BCG study also says the growth capacity of the autonomous industry is being driven largely by safety considerations, citing a National Highway Safety Administration report stating that, each year, there are 33,000 to 40,000 traffic fatalities in the U.S. alone, with 747 fatal crashes each week. But once autonomous cars are deployed at scale, Perrone claims traffic fatalities will be reduced by 75 percent, almost instantaneously. “With complete standardization, we expect fatalities will drop by another two orders of magnitude,” he says.

Moving into the future, both the BCG study and Perrone say autonomy in cars is only going to grow.

“We predict that, by 2035, the preponderance of cars will be autonomous—and we’re going to have a major stake in that action,” says Scharer. “We’re working to become the Microsoft of the autonomous car industry. And while that may sound like a lofty goal, it’s one we feel is attainable.”

WillowTree Apps

Since its founding in 2007, WillowTree has made a name for itself in the tech world. As a budding provider of mobile strategy, design and development services, the company has blossomed from a handful of entrepreneurs to having more than 200 employees housed in offices located in Charlottesville and Durham, North Carolina. With $13.2 million in revenue in 2015, the company experienced growth of 226 percent in fewer than three years, and in the past five years has received numerous accolades and awards.

From 2012 to 2016, Inc. Magazine named WillowTree one of the fastest-growing companies in America. Meanwhile, as one of the fastest-growing businesses in the state, the Virginia Chamber of Commerce has presented it with consecutive Fantastic 50 awards since 2013. In 2015, CEO and founder Tobias Dengel was recognized by SmartCEO as helming one of the nation’s most promising tech companies. And in both 2015 and 2016, WillowTree was awarded International Academy of the Visual Arts Communicator Awards for its work designing mobile apps for Regal Entertainment Group and AOL.

According to WillowTree Chief Experience Officer Blake Sirach, the company helps “Fortune 500 companies take advantage of the mobile wave in ways their internal teams and existing consultants cannot. Because of new device capabilities the medium introduces new and near-constant opportunity, and mobile demands design-driven software development, and that’s where we excel. …As we continue to help companies understand the essential role mobile plays in providing a competitive advantage and better engagement with customers, more and more are turning to us to help guide and implement their mobile strategies.”

That last statement is no exaggeration. In addition to AOL and Regal, the company’s short list of heavy-hitting clients includes GE, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Johnson & Johnson, Time Warner, AEG, Wyndham and Harvard Business Publishing.

Most recently, WillowTree’s work in the growing field of chatbots—or conversational user interfaces—has been garnering tremendous attention. “A chatbot is basically an interface that can hold a conversation with a user via auditory or textual methods,” says Sirach. Designed to simulate human conversation, the bots are used for tasks such as customer service, trouble-shooting and information acquisition.

WillowTree’s chatbots are designed to simulate human conversations in apps such as Facebook Messenger. They help the user with customer service, trouble-shooting and getting more information.

According to Sirach, for certain businesses or products, CUIs offer an advantage over traditional apps. For example, say you’re chatting with a friend via Facebook Messenger and decide to catch a movie. Only, you don’t know what’s playing at what time or where, much less what a given film is about. “It’s one of those situations where it’d be great to have a person around who knows all the answers and can cater to your needs exactly,” says Sirach. However, that’s not often the case. But what if you could simply access a chatbot within the app and, within a couple of questions, get all the info you need? “What this example illustrates is the type of problem that’s perfect for a CUI to solve.”

By the end of the chatbot conversation, not only will you and your friends have decided on a flick, your tickets can be sent directly to you via email, text or natively in the app. “Because the information is provided within the interface you’re already using, you won’t have to download an additional app or pull up a search engine,” says Sirach. Which makes for a much more streamlined and friction-free experience.

Moving into the future, Sirach says customized CUIs will offer companies valuable value-added products—and WillowTree tremendous potential for growth. With businesses seeking increasingly engaging interfaces—according to Business Insider, more than half of all apps downloaded are used only once, with usefulness and engagement holding the key to frequent use—he says the chatbot market is ripe for growth because “CUIs enable products and services to be where the users already are.”

University of Virginia

Chris Goyne’s students have the good fortune of participating in one of the nation’s most groundbreaking undergraduate spacecraft design courses. Since 2013, the UVA aerospace engineering professor’s students have been working with NASA to design research equipment and crafts that travel into the stratosphere and beyond.

Their current project? A three-pound, softball-sized satellite that will spend at least two months orbiting the planet at altitudes equivalent to that of the International Space Station—that is, a minimum of 1,000 orbits at 250 miles above the Earth’s surface. Known as the CubeSat, the vessel is part of a three-satellite group slated to be carried into space in late 2018 by a NASA rocket that will resupply the International Space Station. Although the project is being supervised by UVA students, the other two units are being designed and built by students at Old Dominion University and Virginia Tech.

Since 2013, UVA professor Chris Goyne’s students have been working with NASA to design research equipment and spacecrafts that travel into the Earth’s atmosphere. The softball-sized CubeSat (above) will spend two months orbiting the planet and sending data back to a UVA ground-control station. Photo courtesy of Dan Addison/UVA Communications.

What is the CubeSat’s mission? According to Goyne, the satellite will take measurements from various altitudes for atmospheric density. Once compiled, the data will aide NASA in its efforts to greater understand global atmospheric properties, and how subtleties in the upper atmosphere work to cause drag on orbiting satellites.

Equipped with a tiny ultra-high frequency radio, the CubeSat will beam the data it collects to a UVA ground-control station. Meanwhile, the station will transmit instructions to the craft and communicate with other satellites in space. “Our students will have direct control of our spacecraft, gaining valuable firsthand experience in spacecraft operations,” says Goyne. “They’ll also control the data received from the spacecraft and handle its distribution and dissemination.”

“In essence, these students are walking in the footsteps of famous NASA programs like the Apollo missions.” UVA professor Chris Goyne

The first UVA-developed and -operated spacecraft, CubeSat is a multi-year project, and is passed down to succeeding groups of fourth-year engineering students as a capstone project or course. The craft is expected to be completed this fall, with about 100 students working on the project across the three schools.

“In essence, [they] are walking in the footsteps of famous NASA programs like the Apollo missions,” says Goyne. “It’s a great opportunity for them to participate in a NASA project with real science and technology investigations, and a special experience for them to design, build, test and ultimately fly a craft that actually goes into space.”

This article was updated at 11:32am August 7 to correct the spelling of Silicon Valley.

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