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Published March 19, 2012, 09:06 AM

Driverless tractor

MOORHEAD, Minn. — If you ever imagined what the future of agriculture looks like — driverless tractors crawling across the vast Red River Valley farming landscape — then meet Terry M. Anderson.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

MOORHEAD, Minn. — If you ever imagined what the future of agriculture looks like — driverless tractors crawling across the vast Red River Valley farming landscape — then meet Terry M. Anderson.

He says he’s going to make it happen in 2012 and 2013.

Anderson, 69, whose official address is Spearfish, S.D., has tested a half-scale model of such a tractor near a second home in Texas. He has sets of teams of experts working on the machine at St. Michael, Minn., near Minneapolis.

He expects to build the tractors in the Fargo, N.D., area and even have two full-scale prototypes on display at the Big Iron farm show, Sept. 11 to 13 at the Red River Valley Fairgrounds in West Fargo, N.D.

Initially, the tractors will be primarily for tillage. They’ll have “follow-me” technology, to trail behind a lead vehicle between fields and then follow another tractor, “just like a hired hand would.” Eventually, they’ll be guided by an Area Positioning System, which will allow the tractor to work on its own, after the farmer sets positioning beacons and proscribes parts of the field that are wet, or otherwise to be avoided.

Anderson has a name for his tractor — Spirit. The standard color is “metallic gold,” but he says he’ll paint it any color a customer likes.

His company filed papers with the North Dakota Secretary of State’s office on Jan. 10 as Autonomous Tractor Co. LLC. It was dissolved and newly filed Jan. 18 as Autonomous Tractor Corp. with Stuart Larson, a Hillsboro, N.D., attorney, as its registered agent. The company’s prospectus is being refined by an underwriter working its prospectus for potential investments, says James M. Anderson (no relation) one of the founders, who is the primary owner of Northwestern Bank in Dilworth, Minn.

Anderson has reserved booth space at Big Iron. In the past few weeks he’s been meeting with farmers who want to buy the machines, and others who want to invest in a company that he says could revolutionize farm power.

He wants to build 25 of the tractors in 2013. He is looking for farmers to buy them at a 20 percent discount and test them, and offering a fourth of the company for the public to invest in.

Anderson has roots in North Dakota and the Red River Valley. His grandfather came from Norway in 1878 and settled and farmed at Hatton, N.D., where his father was born in 1916. The family moved to Roseau County, Minn., in 1917. Terry’s father grew up at Greenbush, west of Roseau, and did electrical contracting on the side. Terry was born in 1942, the second of three sons.

Red River Valley roots

In 1956, Terry’s father sold the farm and moved to Hopkins, Minn., a western suburb of Minneapolis. “He had three sons he wanted to provide for college,” Terry says. The Andersons sent the older brother to college for electrical engineering. Money was tighter when Terry graduated from Hopkins (Minn.) High School in 1960.

He took a four-year hitch in the Air Force, in communications. In 1964, he emerged from the service and started as an electrician for his father’s company. Soon, he went to work for a consulting engineering firm, designing electrical systems in buildings, and then to a company that built control systems for material handling systems.

He spent the bulk of his career in Minnetonka, Minn., where he founded Automation Research Group, and seven companies from 1965 to 1986. He “collected” consultants who would work on projects, and divvy up the proceeds. The group formed “technology alliances” with companies such as International Business Machines Corp. and Ford Motor Co.

“I worked seven days a week for 45 years,” he says. “We’d see a problem and collectively work on it and come up with a solution.” Sometimes they would consult for a manufacturer. He was a vice president in all of the companies.

“I never was a CEO of any of my companies because that was not my strong suit. My strong suit was the technology,” he says. Among other things, his company built frozen food distribution centers, automated lumber mills and the world’s fastest communication systems for tying computers together. They built a network computer system at the Honda Design Center in Japan.

Sometimes the group would do their own manufacturing until someone came along and wanted to buy them. The group’s last company — Ancor Communications of Eden Prairie, Minn. — sold for $1.8 billion.

He started to retire in 1996 and retired completely in 1999 and started traveling back to the Greenbush area more often.

On one of those trips, Anderson was watching his first cousin, Byron Eeg, unload a brand new tractor at his Roseau County farm. “I looked at that thing and thought that’s a pretty fancy tractor,” Anderson recalls. Eeg suggested to Anderson that with all of his experience, maybe he could design a cheaper tractor.

“That’s what started me thinking about it,” Anderson says. “I thought, ‘Gee whiz, tractors today are not improving functionally as much as they’re just growing.’”

Anderson studied farm tractor engineering from the late 1800s to the present. “I wondered, ‘What caused the tractor to turn out the way it is? What’s causing it to continue on its path?’” Anderson criticizes what he calls “creeping elegance” in tractor products that serve no benefit.

“Are they looking at how low can we get the cost of horsepower? Hell no. They want to see how high they can run it and still sell tractors,” he says, adding. “Gee whiz, why haven’t they gone to diesel-electric? It’s a much more efficient drive system.” In a diesel-electric tractor, the diesel engine drives an electrical generator, whose output goes into a variable speed controller, to vary the speed of the motor. There is no mechanical connection between the engine and the wheels. The system includes the diesel engine which drives an electrical generator, the traction motors and a “controller” that includes a governor for the engine and components to control the supply of electricity to the traction motors.

A diesel-electric system could be 15 to 25 percent more efficient than what they’re currently doing. “That’s significant,” he says.

Intelligent design?

In 1999, he started doing “paper tiger” designs. Initially he included the diesel-electric design, but with a cab like conventional tractors. “They didn’t have exotic transmissions, planetary differentials and axles,” he says. “If you snag a wheel and the other three slip, you have all that horsepower going to that one axle. And you bust an axle. How long does it take to fix an axle when you have a 10- or 15-day window to get into the field? It’s a problem.”

In the past few years, he’s he built a half-scale tractor to test out the controls. He’s tested it in a 100-by-100-foot airplane hangar that he owns at Live Oak County Airport in Texas. The 51-inch wide model uses one gas engine because they didn’t need to test the diesel engines in a small scale.

He and his associates since have built a full-sized “tubular structure” made from four-inch tubing, for testing the drives. A square-tube structure is stronger than a cast piece structure because it can flex, similar to how a railroad car must flex, on railroad tracks that aren’t flat.

“We have full torque at zero RPM,” he says. “You don’t have that with a diesel. You’ve got to rev that engine up to get the power.” With oil-cooled motors, the Spirit pushes a lot of power into the tracks. He says a production model will be built before July 1 in St. Michael, Minn., followed by 25 more in 2013. “After that the production models will be built “close to Fargo.”

“We’re going to set up the plant to do a minimum of 1,000 a year, to start with,” he says. “But we’re setting up five or six plants around the country, starting with the Saskatchewan-Alberta area, and the Texas panhandle, the Nebraska-Iowa area. Our model is that plant will support the customer” with motor exchanges.

Here are the concepts that drive Terry Anderson’s Spirit tractor:

• Repairable — The Spirit would be provided with twin diesel engines and four electric motors in the wheels. The drive system is being tested by Regal Beloit Corp., based in Wausau, Wis., a motor controller manufacturer. “What we finally came up is to build a motor as the rim,” he says, “and mount two truck tires on it with a space between to drive the track.” The Spirit mechanism design powers both the rear- and front-wheel assemblies. It uses the lattice frame to include a 400-gallon fuel tank without weakening the vehicle.

• Simple — There’s six types of parts this tractor — a set of two generators that produce the electricity for the tractor; four variable frequency controllers, which control the tractor’s speed; four wheel motors; a controller; and a track. Eventually, there will be an APS, which offers far better position control than Global Positioning System.

• Modular — Farmers have a range of tractor horsepower for different kinds of jobs. He came up with twin engines because the tractor can be run at fuel efficiently at 150 horsepower with one engine running, to serve a low-end power requirement. “You can hook two of them together as an articulating tractor and you can have a 600 horse tractor that can compete with Case-IH, hands down,” he says.

• Right-sized — The Spirit was designed to be 102 inches wide because that’s the legal width on the highway. Farmers are telling Anderson that tractors and implements are getting “entirely too big” because they can’t get under bridges or move down the road without hitting mailboxes or running motorists off the road. “State legislators are starting to address this issue: you’re only going to be able to bring that equipment on the road at certain times, and you’re going to have to have a vehicle out front warning people it’s coming and one behind so you don’t ram into it, just like you do anything else that’s big on the road.”

• Follow-me principle — “One farmer told me that when he’s driving a combine, all he can think about is ‘If the weather holds so I can get my tilling done. Why not have a tractor that can follow his combine? We can do that. While he’s combining, he’s tilling. I can see single farmers, today, handle several thousand acres of property with this product,” he says. “We talked to a farmer the other day that picked up 7,000 acres of land in the valley because people who owned it are retiring. He’s tap-dancing when he saw this thing. He said my God, that thing could till, that thing could seed, and spray. That thing could do lots of things for me.”

• No GPS — The tractor does not use GPS. GPS was “never intended for precision agriculture,” he says. The Spirit will rely on an APS. He includes a “positioning transducer unit (PTU).” The PTUs must be set around a field, guiding tractors within fractions of an inch of accuracy. He thinks the equipment will be a lot cheaper than what farmers already are paying for subscription services.

He calls Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) and OmniSTAR and Real Time Kinematic simple “band aids.” GPS is “is not reliable enough for an autonomous tractor.” RTK is operating illegally in the frequency band and it’s been warned by the Federal Communications Commission, Anderson says. “If they don’t correct it, they’re going to shut them down. And I’ll tell you the FCC can do it. It is in violation of international law, not federal law in this country.” The International Communications Union, which governs radio frequencies, not Congress.

RTK has “secondary privileges” in the bands they’re using, and public uses like emergency services have primary use. The FCC has notified RTK operators to either fix what they’re doing or shut down. To “fix” it, the RTK user has to “listen on the frequency first,” before they can transmit. “If you’ve got a big fire going on, they’re not going to be able to transmit because emergency services are going to use up all of the band width.”

Lasers guide the machines, much as the military uses “laser targets” to mark a target for bombing. The military uses GPS for positioning and navigation “when it’s working.” GPS is subject to the “gravitational flexing in the earth’s surface” that makes the system move “up and down and backward and forward.” The satellite constellation has never been down, but solar flares, for example, can significantly weaken the GPS for up to two days.

• Redundancy — The tractor has numerous redundancies, in the engines and control systems. “The farmer can’t afford to be down,” he says. “If we lose one our laser systems the other one will do the job until he we get it repaired,” he says.

The company had a board meeting Jan. 6 in Florida and decided to make 25 percent of the company available to the public. Jim M. Andersen (no relation) a friend and owner of Northwestern Bank in Dilworth, Minn., is working on the financing. He’s met informally with farmers — from one farmer to 20 at a time. He says they’re very interested in the project.

“After Big Iron if you really like what we’re doing you can convert that instrument into (company) stock with a 20 percent discount — very attractive,” he says. “Also, by the way, you can buy a tractor with a 20 percent discount, if you’ve got a convertible debenture. That’s the carrot we’re holding out.”

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