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Published July 01, 2013, 09:13 AM

'Outside the box'

An autonomous implement firm has futuristic plans, including the development of a dirverless tractor and aerial drones that scout and spray crops.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

ST. MICHAEL, Minn. — The developer of a so-called “autonomous tractor” says people all over the world are coming to see it. But he says the concept is changing.

Terry M. Anderson and his Autonomous Tractor Co. are presenting the Spirit Tractor as a diesel, electric-power “platform,” fitted with various tools to become an “autonomous implement.”

The company is technically based in Fargo, N.D., but its research and development facility and offices are in St. Michael, Minn. Anderson is also working on other concepts — self-propelled grain transports, planters — and eventually self-propelled combines.

And if that seems far out, consider that he and colleagues are developing “sprayships.” These are autonomous aerial spray drones, each equipped with eight propellers that hover and will spray a farmer’s fields for various crop pests, even at night. A generator on the trailer will create energy for the drones.

Long-awaited demonstration

Anderson first described his Spirit Tractor concept to Agweek in March 2012 and brought it to the Big Iron farm show in Fargo in September, ostensibly to demonstrate it. Anderson expected to build the company’s first production model by July 1, 2012, and expected to build 25 more in 2013, setting up five or six plants from Saskatchewan and Alberta into Texas.

The machine attracted a lot of attention at Big Iron, but the company didn’t run it, except when loading it and unloading it from a truck.

Ten months later, Anderson cheerfully accepted a request by Agweek for a demonstration of the tractor. He planned to show it moving around a track on a field, but wet weather meant the farmer hadn’t harvested the alfalfa in the chosen field, so the demonstration was not possible.

In the end, on June 24, the demonstration was a simple movement of the machine from its garage bay, a few feet into the parking lot, and then a return. The machine seemed to move haltingly at times, Anderson says, because some of the track parts had been improperly adjusted.

“Everybody wants to see it pulling a planter or pulling a chisel plow,” Anderson says. “We’ve used it to pull the truck we haul it on, so there’s a lot of weight on it. We’re able to measure the drawbar horsepower. We’ve been testing it from a ‘load’ standpoint. We’ve never cared much about showing from a standpoint of tilling. We want to have it (developed) to the point where it can be sold and won’t come back” as unacceptable.

Here to help famers

Anderson, 70, a native of Greenbush, Minn., made a career as an entrepreneur, building seven companies. He says his primary company was sold for $1.8 billion. He says he’s not hurting for money, and making money isn’t his primary interest in developing machines for agriculture.

“Most of us are over 70, so we have all this experience,” he says, of his comrades. “Some of them are in ag. Some sat in Dallas with the Apollo launches. We all think the same way — outside the box.” The group is interested in seeing something built for agriculture.

“Seventy-five percent of the company ownership will never sell to somebody who will bury us. All these people have to offer is money and there’s a lot more than money in these efforts,” he says. “I’m here because I think I can help farmers and the rest of us are here for that very reason.”

After retiring “for about a week” in 1999, Anderson started working on other things.

“I was bored stiff,” he says. He and a group of friends started studying the need and workability of autonomous power for farmers and other applications — especially those short on labor.

Anderson says he and other investor-owners have put $8 million into the “autonomous” equipment since 1999, and are putting $100,000 a month into the project. So far, nothing is ready for the market.

Two missions

The farm tractor company is really two, he says.

Area Positioning System Inc. develops the integrated guidance system for the machinery. The company is looking for partners. Companies such as Trimble Navigation Ltd., TopCon Positioning Systems Inc. and Raven Industries have looked at the system, but no deals have been made.

The separate company, Autonomous Tractor Co., develops the diesel electric drive system — the motors and running systems, including the tracks, motors and diesel generators. The company is looking for licensees for this part of the technology. Anderson is willing to license the diesel electric drive technology to an implement manufacturer — probably not one of the majors — and then will sell them the integrated guidance system to control it.

“We are going to partner with somebody, but we haven’t selected anyone yet,” Anderson says. “We have a lot of offers in the U.S., Canada and overseas. A Canadian group has told us they have a plant emptied for us to move in, so we can start manufacturing.”

Anderson says if the company is to sell the machines into the farm equipment market, it would probably have to charge around $200,000. It would maybe take $100,000 in parts to build it.

Building 1,000 of the machines would cost $100 million. He says he thinks the company will pick a potential partner in July.

Size, convenience

Anderson says his ideas are in demand because of the lack of qualified farm labor, the need to make farm machines smaller for transport and the need to cut weight for compaction. He says some of the autonomous machines will need to be shepherded by farmers who can see problems and anticipate counter-moves, while even sophisticated machines cannot.

The grain transport would take the place of a conventional grain cart, except it is an autonomous platform fitted with a 400-bushel cart. That sounds small to farmers who use 1,000-bushel carts, but the transport is more efficient, Anderson says. He thinks it’ll go up to 30 mph, go directly to and from the combine, and doesn’t need some of the turnaround space that traditional tractor/trailers require. He is arranging for an auger to be made at Westfield Industries Ltd. in East Rosenort, Manitoba.

“The intent of it is that we actually move grain faster than a 2,000-bushel grain cart,” he says. He says the machines won’t be as heavy as a conventional cart, which he says causes compaction problems. He says grain combines use only 70 percent of the fuel that tractors do when they’re servicing a combine with a grain cart, so it should save fuel.

“The biggest combine out there has a 400-bushel grain hopper,” he says. “So that’s what it’s intended to do — take a full hopper when it’s convenient for the combine and take it to the truck and unload it and get back to the combine again.”

Ongoing visibility

The research center has hosted numerous groups from across the country. A hallway displays articles from publications near and far, including Europe. A group of 27 from Australia is coming on July 3, he says. He sees potential markets in Brazil, Kazakhstan, Georgia and Ukraine.

He recently spoke In Waterloo, Iowa, at a John Deere event that included 300 engineers. He says John Deere is also working on autonomous, self-propelled implements and that something will be available within several years.

Separately, Anderson talked to members of the “FamilyFarms Group,” a coalition of farmers, in Phoenix, in 2012, who are intrigued by a driverless option.

“What we concluded is that an autonomous, self-propelled implement platform was going to take a lot of different shapes,” he says. “And we decided we have to deal with corn” as a main target market crop.

Static display

Even though the machine was a static display at Big Iron, Anderson described the show as a success. “We got a lot of valuable information at Big Iron, about things we could update,” he says. He had lots of conversations with manufacturer representatives.

Anderson acknowledges that some Big Iron officials expressed disappointment that the machine wouldn’t be part of the event’s famous field demonstrations. He says he hadn’t been to ag shows before so didn’t know what would be expected.

He says he’d consider coming back to Big Iron, but he isn’t sure whether the event can accommodate his company’s needs — “our own area where we can set up the testing of our equipment,” he says. The event had wanted a line-up with the other tractors on the market, and perhaps some kind of “drag race.”

“Originally when we started working on this, we concluded that the future is autonomous implements, not tractors,” he says. “But to prove the technology, we decided we’d slap together a tractor. And that’s what we did. We were quite surprised about the response on that, the reception from everybody including people like John Deere.”

He says the Phase One model of the tractor, available at Big Iron, was changed immediately after the show, but doesn’t say how much. He notes company officials are working on monitoring motor temperatures, including cooling liquids and the windings of the motor.

“We’re spending 2013 to find out what U.S. agriculture wants to do about us,” Anderson says.

He expects the Spirit Tractor to be displayed prominently at the Wright County Fair in Howard Lake, Minn., July 31 to Aug. 4. It’ll be a static exhibit — both the autonomous tractor and the autonomous grain transport. He says the Nebraska Corn Growers Association wants to create a special show just for the Spirit Tractor.

If he returns to Big Iron, he thinks he’s going to bring the planter with at least one shredder module and one planter module on it.

If all goes well.

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