Stan Schneider started out in the defence and security industry over 15 years ago. That entrance was paved by his Ph.D. thesis in the Stanford Aerospace Robotics lab where they worked on autonomous systems of many types. “Most of these systems were on flying things including space robots,” said Schneider.  “We also worked on assembly robots and underwater vehicles.”

Today, Stan is Chief Executive Officer of Real-Time Innovations (RTI), a large software framework company for autonomous systems. Stan Schneider was selected as a Game Changer for the Feb/Mar issue of Vanguard based on his work over the years in autonomous systems. 

Tell us about your role in your company today?

I specialize in disruptive innovations caused by the combination of artificial intelligence and pervasive networking. I am CEO of RTI, the number one software framework for autonomous systems. RTI is enabling a new generation of intelligent distributed systems, boldly seeking to transform entire industries. RTI has experience working in applications across Automotive, Transportation, Energy, Medical, Defense, and Industrial Control. 

One of my main responsibilities is to define and defend the culture and hire and encourage great people.  RTI is certified as a Great Place to Work and holds a top rating on Glassdoor.

What was your most challenging moment?

I have too many to count. From a leadership perspective, perhaps it was when we were involved with the Grand Coulee dam repurposing project. Grand Coulee is the largest power plant in North America. The goal was to repurpose the dam from “base load” (just generating power) to an intelligent system responsible for dynamically balancing the entire Western Grid so the continent could support more renewable sources like wind and solar. However, we had technical challenges and political roadblocks that nearly caused the grid to fail, causing the continent to literally go dark.  RTI worked for years without funding to save the dam.  

This experience led to RTI’s culture of “we don’t let customers fail”…which led us to our current opportunity. Today, RTI helps major projects, many costing billions, to transform their operation or build new designs that leverage the power of distributed intelligence. These systems need base software architecture and vendors with deep experience that will not let them fail. We sell trust.

What was your “aha” moment or epiphany that you think will resonate most with our reader, tell us that story?

It was in 2006. We had money. We had a great team that wanted to work together. And we really knew networking, software, and electro-mechanical systems. We got a rare chance to start over, to look into the future and decide where to go. Every technologist should get an opportunity like that.

We saw a chance to lead a bold new vision. AI was just becoming practical. Networking was exploding beyond computers into devices and every corner of the planet. We decided to lead the transition to intelligent, autonomous systems outside of the cloud. We believed then, as now, that smart machines will be the most important technology trend for the next 20+ years. Soon, cars will safely drive themselves, smart algorithms will join hospital care teams, defense systems will protect with lower cost and error, industrial automation will evolve to intelligent autonomy, and power systems will better use renewables. Historians will look back at our time and wonder how we got by without smart things.

So, we set off to enable smart machines for the benefit of mankind.

Today, our software connects perception to control in over 200 autonomous vehicles, drives the new generation of medical robotics, controls hyperloop and flying cars, runs the largest power plants in North America, and provides 24×7 intelligence to hospital care teams.  We run a smarter world.

What is the one thing that has you most fired up today?

The advent of AI is the most epic transition of our time. According to Moore’s law, CPUs will be 100,000 times more powerful in only 25 years, and 10,000,000,000x in only 50.  People fear the societal impact of this power on job opportunity, social media, and Big Brother. That’s a valid fear, but this newfound capability also offers unprecedented hope for the future. Autonomy is the best opportunity in generations to make our world greener, safer, healthier, faster, and more productive…to quite literally make the world run smarter…and better. 

What is the best advice you received?

Grow exactly as fast as you can hire great people. 

What is a habit that contributes to your success?

I believe in “outsight”. Outsight is any learning or information you can get from outside your echo chamber, especially your company. This can come from customers, books, consortia, analysts, papers, mentors, or many other things. I get some form of outsight every week and insist my management team does the same.

What people or organizations do you believe best embody the innovation mindset? 

I see innovation everywhere, but the most impactful innovations combine two or more disciplines to rethink how things should work. Universities like Stanford and MIT produce the best engineers because they encourage the study of both an engineering discipline and computer science. Jobs combined Internet and mobility, computers and movies, music and devices. Mathworks combines matrix math and programming.  That’s why RTI puts AI together with networking.  Nobody else does that.

How is your organization changing the game within your industry sector? 

AI is the most epic transition of our time. It promises to make nearly the entire planet run smarter and better. It truly offers unprecedented hope for the future. But AI alone can’t do much of anything in a real-world system. That intelligence must connect to networks of sensors, motors, and operators to be useful. And that connection has to work exactly right every time.

Autonomous system networks are nothing like the enterprise networking that runs the web and business services.  Business systems move a lot of data, but they don’t really care exactly when that data arrives, how many times per second it may be updated, how to get it to coordinated moving devices, or how to minimize the delay between sensing and action. A system that’s controlling critical infrastructure, like an autonomous car or a Navy ship Combat Management System (CMS), has to care about all of these and more.

So, our product, in a nutshell, goes and gets the right data to the right place at the right time.  It sounds hard, but it’s really very simple: it makes it seem like any information is always available as if it were in local memory, even if that information physically lives across thousands of distributed devices. 

With access to any data, an algorithm, sensor, or actuator can then operate as if it were a separate system that somehow “works as one” with all the other systems.  

It’s a fiction, of course; we can’t really put all data in an entire ship or fleet of vehicles into a single algorithm’s memory.  But, we can know exactly the small subset of data that the algorithm actually needs, ask exactly when it needs it, and then find exactly where it lives in the rest of the system.  From there, it’s easy.  We go get the right data and put it into the right memory just in time. That makes it seem like all data is everywhere.

This capability is more than a trick; it’s a foundational way to build.  It lets you design around the data, instead of around active things like servers or networks.  We call it data centricity, and it truly changes the game.

The harder question is really: what game does it change?  Well, we run over 1500 designs, including most of the US and allies Navy surface ships, the Western Grid balancing system, GE Healthcare’s hospital device architecture, and even Canada’s air traffic control system.  All of these are far more intelligent than they could otherwise be because smart algorithms can reliably control distributed devices.  It’s a very horizontal basic technology.

What are some of the biggest impediments to innovation in your industry sector?

The systems we run are immensely complex. The DDG 1000 destroyer, for instance, integrates software written by over 1000 teams of programmers. An autonomous drone or ground vehicle can have millions of lines of code and take decades to develop. Sifting through the haystacks of data for the one needle that an algorithm needs is a fundamental challenge. And it doesn’t stop there: scalability, latency, reliability, security, dataflow rates, configuration, maintainability, system evolution, and even politics are huge blockers to the application of intelligence to these new generations of infrastructure. 

Because defense systems cannot be dependent on single sources, interoperability is also a key issue. This has always been true, of course, but as systems grow in complexity, interoperability becomes even more challenging. RTI has a long history of supporting, initiating, and developing open standards to enable a healthy supply chain of competitive vendors.  In addition to the DDS standard, we support an alphabet soup of key standards efforts in the defense space alone, ranging from FACE (avionics) to MOSA (modular architecture) to GVA (military ground vehicles). This essential capability lets defense integrators merge multiple systems such as sensors, C2, and weapon systems into a collaborative real-time trusted network.

How has innovation become ingrained in your organization’s culture and how is it being optimized?

Perhaps the most obvious driver of innovation is in our vision statement: By enabling a new generation of intelligent distributed systems, RTI boldly seeks to transform entire industries. We particularly seek applications that promote a sustainable, safe, green, and healthy planet. 

This is a directive to do more than many would think possible for a small company.  We exist to lead the key transformation of our time to autonomous systems.  We arrogantly take on the goal to transform entire industries to this vision.

We can reasonably claim to have already achieved industry transformation, especially in defense. DDS is the assumed architectural glue for Navy combat management systems, advanced radar, military ground vehicles, underwater autonomous systems, unmanned air systems, and more. Twenty years ago, these systems used a hodgepodge of proprietary stovepipe designs, essentially precluding competitive development of system components. Today DDS provides an architectural basis for reusable, composable systems in many applications.

As another example, RTI was founded to commercialize research.  Unlike many other corporate research departments, RTI’s team works closely with product development and field teams. We have direct access to customers and government agencies using the work. The development team is involved with almost every research effort.  These structures keep research aligned with reality and therefore relevant. As a result, we are rated in the top 1% in the US for research commercialization success. 

We also foster an innovative environment far beyond our vision and our research.  In the end, a culture that accepts and even encourages well-considered risks and the inevitable failures and mistakes drives innovation.  RTI is a safe place to try.  We never penalize ambition, even if it ends in failure.

What technologies, business models, and trends will drive the biggest changes in your industry over the next two years?

Long term, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the only trend that really matters. Many systems have a 25 year or longer design lifetime. Within that lifetime, CPUs will improve by a factor of 100,000x. Even in the next 2 years, this has to be the key to every new and developing project in the industry. Any architecture that doesn’t target using this capability as its prime goal is already obsolete.

Of course, AI lives on – thrives on – data. Putting that data at the center of the architecture is the key trend in the defense and autonomy markets. Thus, data centricity is the most important trend in intelligent defense system design.

In software business models, recurring revenues are the proven way to ensure vendor/customer ongoing partnership. I am a fan of aligning economic drivers to the relationship goals. Recurring licensing is by far the best match. 

Open source is important, but open source is a low-cost “follower” business model. Open source cannibalizes markets; it doesn’t colonize them. Many misunderstand this, leading to mismatched motives, funding dead-end or lopsided products, and expensive failures.  In markets like autonomy, open-source will only be a significant player after the architectural basis is well understood.

What is your parting piece of advice?

The key to leadership is to know what people want, and then what they want to follow.  People want a chance at one or more of five things: To do well, do good, meet challenges, be a team, or change the Way Things Are. (aka Excellence, Service, Ambition, Community, Impact.)

People follow honest, forward-looking, inspiring optimists.

If you put those together, they form the foundation of leadership: Be a leader that people want to follow because you honestly inspire them to make the contribution that they really want.