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.
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.
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.
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.”