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Published September 17, 2012, 10:50 AM

Quiet 'Spirit'

Autonomous Tractor Corp. skipped the much-ballyhooed field demonstration for its tank-like driverless tractor at the Big Iron farm show, held Sept. 11 through 13.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

WEST FARGO, N .D. — Autonomous Tractor Corp. skipped the much-ballyhooed field demonstration for its tank-like driverless tractor at the Big Iron farm show, held Sept. 11 through 13. The “Spirit” tractor prototype was there only as a static exhibit — still a hit, as developers answered questions from show-goers.

Terry Anderson, a businessman who lives in Spearfish, S.D., said there was a late change in the system that couldn’t be fully tested. He was busy even before the show started, talking with a John Deere marketing executive who said he admired the concept for its “out-of-the-box” thinking.

The prototype was quietly brought into the West Fargo fairgrounds’ livestock building on Sept. 9. It weighs 30,000 pounds and made heavy marks on the concrete floor, and stood without fuel or batteries for safety reasons.

On Sept. 11, the gold-painted, 9-foot-tall, tracked Spirit tractor stood silently in the display area at the Red River Valley Fairgrounds, while thousands of show-goers buzzed around it. The show has 800 exhibitors and an estimated 80,000 attendees in a typical year.

“They won’t need us anymore.” joked Chuck Lesmeister, a farmer from Morris, Minn. “We’ll all be out of work.”

Getting serious, Lesmeister said he thinks there will be glitches, but that a driverless tractor has a place in the market. “We’re breaking new ground here,” he said. “I think it’ll allow the farmer to work 24 hours a day. You’ll take the fatigue factor out of it. You just send it out there, and let it go by itself.”

24-hour farmer

The tractor recently was increased to a 400-horsepower model, up from a 350-horsepower rating. When commercial models are built, the tractor will retail between $200,000 and $250,000, Anderson said.

The machine has been envisioned for years, but physically put together in the past 14 months.

One of the engineers for the project is George Berg of the St. Michael, Minn., area, a former fighter pilot and an electrical and mechanical engineer with product development experience at Honeywell. Berg told Big Iron attendees that farmers have been most intrigued by the Area Positioning System, a guidance program that uses beacons and lasers. They’re also fascinated with the diesel-electric motors that drive it, more akin to a train locomotive than a traditional farm tractor.

“I think there will be a big clamor for something like this, where you don’t have a driver,” Berg said. “If you’re just putting GPS in a tractor, a driver still has to be there, in case there’s a problem. We don’t have to do that.”

The Spirit has seven on-board computers and many monitoring systems, with current and voltage meters to alert the farmer to problems, including obstructions. “Because we have RF (radio frequency) connections, the farmer can be sitting at home, he gets a message that says, ‘Hey something is wrong.’ We’ll have high-definition TV cameras,” Berg said. “He can look and say, hey, there’s a herd of cows that walked in front of the tractor. He can see that.”

Autonomous Tractor is hoping to start production of the machines in March or April 2013, so tractors will be available next summer. The company is gauging demand based on the Big Iron show, Berg said.

Late demo scrub

Berg said the company decided about a month ago to scrap the demonstration because a new laser software it installed hadn’t been fully tested. Anderson said the prototype will go back to the company’s test facility in St. Michael, where it will continuously run on a figure-8 test track for 1,000 hours.

John Nowatski, a North Dakota State University Extension Service machine systems specialist, who was organizing the displays and in-field demonstrations, wasn’t happy about the cancellation, but could understand why the company didn’t want to roll it out prematurely.

Autonomous Tractor says once fully tested, the machine will be used in a variety of ways. When pulling a grain cart, for example, the combine operator can summon the Spirit to come up alongside for loading. The machine doesn’t go on the road by itself, but follows a pickup truck or some other vehicle, and the driver has a shut-off switch.

One state department of transportation official questioned whether it had to be physically connected. “I said we should send a ball of string with it,” Anderson says. “You’d tie it to the back of the pickup and tie it to the tractor. It’s connected. He got the point.”

It’s still an open question whether the machine needs insurance or is covered under farm liability policies. “(Farmers) could be towing something behind a pickup and it could come loose,” Anderson said. “They’re responsible for this thing out on the road. Whether it’s tethered or not. That isn’t the issue.”

Modular parts

The tractor is built with modular components — four electric motors and two diesel engines. If one of the electric motors fails, the company will deliver the motor from the factory and either will switch it for a fee or the farmer can do it on his own. The marketing plan doesn’t include a dealer network, but instead entails dealing directly with a factory.

It is a perfectly balanced track, with no-load to full-load. “A typical tracked tractor, when you start picking up a load, the front end will lift up,” Anderson said. “That’s why the engine is mounted ahead of the tracks, and you’ve got weights ahead of that. They’re trying to offset the torque that’s going into the differential. We don’t have a differential. We have an electric motor right in the wheel.”

There will be no grease fittings, Anderson emphasized. The production tractor will be oil-cooled and lubed.

Nowatzki said one advantage of the machine is that it is narrow, meeting European road restrictions of 8 feet wide. U.S. tillage equipment is often up to 20 feet wide, folded. He thinks the system will be accepted, particularly by larger U.S. farmers who could have one competent driver supervising two or three machines for various purposes.

“I think there is some resistance among farmers who didn’t get into farming to sit at a desk,” Nowatzki said. “They got into farming because they wanted to be close to the land and animals. This removes them from being out there. That’s not that attractive.”

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