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Out on Zimmerman field in Minnesota, a 25,000-pound tractor named The Spirit chugs forward, reaches a corner, pivots, and heads back the opposite direction. It does this over and over, tracing a pattern out in the soil, looking more like a large block than a regular tractor. Right now it is discing, creating a seed bed to prep the soil for planting; it can also cut hay, administer weed electrocution, and a variety of other applications.

The catch? There’s no driver.

Autonomous tractor

The Spirit, autonomous tractor

The Spirit is one of the first autonomous tractors in production, and it’s being built right here in Fargo. It’s the product of a company called simply Autonomous Tractor Corporation.

“We’ve kind of been flying under the radar,” said Kraig Schulz, President and CEO of the company.

It started up in 2012 by Kraig’s stepfather, Terry Anderson, a serial tech entrepreneur of 40 years who has founded 8 companies – including Ancor Communications which sold for 2 billion in 2000. The idea of The Spirit came after they kept hearing complaints from relatives and regional farmers about labor problems, tractor prices and tractor design.

“Our family has deep roots in agriculture,” Schulz said. “In ag, when you gotta plant, you gotta plant now, within a 5 day period. That’s challenging, because you never know when those 5 days are going to happen. All those neighbors are trying to do it the same time, and there’s not enough labor to go around.”

In the past, the response to these problems was to keep building bigger and bigger tractors, Schulz said. But while there are many benefits to adding more power, there are also serious consequences. For one, Schulz said, the equipment becomes very expensive and hard to repair. Their size also makes them harder to control, and often causes damage to the soil that kills beneficial bacteria.

“Bigger is no longer going to help us,” Schulz said. “These things are huge, and that’s proving to be very problematic.”

For Terry Anderson and his old crew of engineers, this posed a tantalizing challenge.

“Terry being who he is, said why don’t you make them smaller, cheaper and autonomous?” Schulz said.

The Spirit

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That’s precisely what they’ve done. Anderson rounded up a team of 15 employees, and reestablished his core advisory team – the same one that built Ancor Communications. Together they were able to raise millions of dollars from friends, family, and a corporate sponsor, Schulz said.

“He got the band back together again for one more tour,” Schulz said.

They started designing the Spirit in 2012 and had a prototype by 2013. Now, the first Spirit tractor stands, a golden 25,000-pound block of a tractor with no cab (similar to a LEGO block, according to an article in Farm Industry News) and weight-bearing tracks to minimize soil compression.

The Spirit has 25,000-hour service life, a 500-hour service interval, a maximum 2-hour repair time, and a selling price of $500 per horsepower. That’s a good 30 – 50% cheaper than your typical market price tractor, Schulz said.

To get technical, power is supplied by twin 202-hp, 5.2-liter Isuzu diesel engines, which drive dual generators that provide power to four oil-cooled electric wheel motors. The dual-diesel configuration can be run at drawbar horsepower ratings ranging from 100 to 400 hp in 100-hp increments.

The team has also built in a hybrid laser-radio navigation system that keeps the Spirit from straying outside of field boundaries. If anything else should go wrong – say, someone accidentally walking in front – the tractor is programmed to immediately shut down.

Training the autonomous tractor

Autonomous tractor

The Spirit operates through a training procedure, as they displayed that day on Zimmerman field.

“You train it like you would your son or your daughter,” Schulz said. “You train them by going out and showing them the field. Once you’ve put it into training mode, it is gathering all that data. It gathers dimensions, methods, the patterns, etc.”

Once it’s trained, you can confirm that is has processed the data correctly. Then you step out side and hit “go” from your phone, Schulz said.

Another feature of the Spirit is its ability to work front, middle and back, separately or simultaneously. This could revolutionize many farming processes, such as hay farming, Schulz said; rather than doing the typical three pass run –cutting, raking, and bailing – you can do that all in one pass with the Spirit.

“It’s designed for multi-task applications,” he said. “The point is not to replace every tractor out there, but to have applications where you can have truly game changing productivity enhancements.”

Make any tractor autonomous

According to Schulz, an unforeseen benefit to the development of the autonomous tractor is that they can transfer the technology and have it retro-fitted onto any tractor they want. They call it Auto Drive.

“Auto Drive can be put on, for example a John Deere, and it will make that tractor autonomous,” he said.

Another project they are developing is something called E-Drive. This is particularly useful for recycling old tractors to make them like new, Schulz said, and it involves ripping out the entire drive frame in an old frame, and putting in twin diesel engines and motor engines.

“It’s a third of the cost of a new tractor, and makes it better,” Schulz said. “30% less fuel emissions, 30% less carbon emissions, and runs for a very, very long time. You can repair it yourself.”

The Spirit, he said, combines the E-Drive tech and the Auto-drive tech, to create one. Ultimate. Tractor.

Autonomy in Ag is imminent

autonomous tractor

That day on Zimmerman farm as they showed off the Spirit’s test run, a man named Gordy Lefebvre watched in awe.

Lefebvre is a 76-year-old tractor mechanic who has been inspecting a variety of tractors for over 21 years, he said. When he first heard about the autonomous tractor idea, he said he didn’t believe it.

“I didn’t think it would work,” he said. “But it does.”

Having watched the design of tractors continue to change over time, Lefebvre said he can see the value in a tractor like the Spirit.

“It saves time and labor of 100 men,” he said. “It’d be so much easier to use on a farm. You could be sitting in your office doing other things, or getting planter ready, and tractor’s working the field and you’d have nobody in there.”

The idea of autonomous tractors is not a new one. For years, Schulz said, large companies like AgCo and John Deere have been claiming to release autonomous products – Terry Anderson himself worked on an autonomous tractor for Deere back in the 70s, he said. The difference is that they still have not released anything, perhaps due to a lack of cost-efficiency, Schulz said.

Other companies rely heavily on GPS technology, which Schulz sees as an unreliable way to monitor a heavy autonomous tractor. Instead of GPS, the Spirit uses a long-range navigation system (LRNS), that is patented by the company, Schulz said.

Eventually, the team hopes to have the tractors manufactured locally, ideally from somewhere in Fargo.

As for our friend Gordy Lefebvre, the whole idea is still hard to wrap his head around.

“I might see it as common in my day – depends on how long I live,” he said with a chuckle. “If I do like my mother I’ll be fine.”

Photos courtesy of Autonomous Tractor Corp.

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Marisa Jackels