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New tractor retrofit package eliminates need for driver

ATC showed a unit that was outfitted with an electric drivetrain called eDrive that will serve as the platform for the autonomous technology coming out this year starting with a better autosteer system
<p>ATC showed a unit that was outfitted with an electric drivetrain called eDrive that will serve as the platform for the autonomous technology coming out this year, starting with a better auto-steer system.</p>
Autonomous Tractor Corporation, the maker of the Spirit concept tractor, shows a retrofit package that will make used tractors operate themselves.

As companies such as Audi, BMW, Ford and Google announce their plans to market electric self-driving cars, one tech firm in North Dakota is already marketing the technology, only on a platform that is designed for tractors.

Earlier this month, at the Family Farms Group winter conference in Nashville, Autonomous Tractor Corporation displayed an electric drive tractor ready for an autonomous navigation and safety system called AutoDrive. It is designed as a retrofit package for used tractors, equipping it with an electromechanical drive.

Company CEO Kraig Schulz says that it is the only package on the market that will provide for truly autonomous operation, a distinction he says is worth noting since other systems require some level of driver assistance.

“It’s a big step between ‘autosteer,’ which still requires a driver to be in the cab, and ‘autodrive,’ which requires no driver,” Schulz says. “The human brain is still the best supercomputer the world has right now, and you must replace it with something that is sufficiently and reliably capable of making the same decisions a driver would make.”

Intelligent design.

AutoDrive is designed to do just that, Schulz says. The system uses lasers and radio signals, called Laser Radio Navigation System (LRNS), to guide the tractor down a field. GPS is used only as a backup because of the risk of “drift,” lost signals, and potential hacking due to the lack of encryption, Schulz says.

Actions are made with the help of artificial intelligence software, which the operator trains how to do the required tasks.

The brains of the system are contained in two small domes placed on top of the tractor. They are what house ATC’s propriety AI software, which is responsible for thinking, driving and operating safely.

“When you replace the driver, you have to think about replacing everything the driver manages, and that means safety, engine, transmission, tires, implement, performance, direction, and velocity,” says Terry Anderson, vice president of ATC’s systems design. “For this you need complete, accurate, reliable, real-time information across many, many functions.”

No operator is required onboard. But he or she can view the system status remotely on a smart phone or laptop and do an override if necessary at any time.

Safety first.

With any autonomous system, safety is always the key concern. ATC says it has made a system that is fail-safe because of all of the backups that signal the tractor to stop if something goes wrong.  Sonar sensors provide a 360-degree view around the vehicle and signal the wheels to stop if an obstacle is detected.

“All of the information is derived in the field and on the tractor, not by satellites and computers thousands of miles away,” Anderson says. “It is a land-based, real-time system that independently cross-validates key inputs such as equipment status, location, direction and velocity. If the information doesn’t all agree, the system will simply stop and figure it out or alert the farmer on his cell phone that something is wrong.”

So why would you want an autonomous tractor? Anderson says the technology reduces the need for labor, which can be in short supply because of the level of skill that is required to operate today’s sophisticated machinery. And, because of all of the backups that are monitoring the system, the tractor can operate more safely and reliably by itself than it can with a human operator, who can get distracted.

Farm implement controls.

The domes also contain the software that controls the implement. A separate package, called the implement management kit, contains all of the sensors and hardware needed for the implement and tractor to communicate.

“AutoDrive controls and senses the implement to make sure the tasks you have trained it to do are actually done,” Schulz says.

The software tells the implement what to do, and sensors on the implement communicate how it is performing. For example, height and tension are all measured and monitored, and if a problem is detected, the sensors tell the tractor to shut down.

The implement sensors and connector cables are sold as a kit along with the hydraulic valves and mechanical actuators that make the equipment work.  ATC has designed the first of these implement kits for tillage.

“Each implement requires a different placement of the sensors,” Schulz says. “So we will offer them on tillage equipment first. Balers and planters will come later.”

Electric drivetrain required.

For AutoDrive to work, tractors must be outfitted with an electric drivetrain called eDrive. Having an electric drivetrain enables the functions to be controlled electronically by the AI software. ATC sells the electric drivetrain as a package called eDrive, which you can read about here. 

Price for the eDrive package is around $500 / hp. “That’s about half of what you’d spend on a new tractor, which is priced around $1,000 / hp, and even less than just the maintenance on an older tractor over the course of  five to ten years,” Schulz says.

Install takes two to three weeks. ATC will work with farmers and dealers, who do the installation and servicing on their own.

On display.

FamilyFarms Group, which is owned by its member farmers and headquartered near St. Louis, purchased the first of ATC’s electronic drivetrain packages last October (See link.)

Schulz traveled to the group’s winter conference in Nashville last week to display a John Deere 8760 that had been equipped with an electric drivetrain. AutoDrive will be installed when it becomes available later this year to automate operation.

This retrofit tractor is a FamilyFarms R&D project. Allen Lash, FamilyFarms Group CEO, said there are four phases of this autonomous initiative: 1. Electromechanical – Current 2. Guidance – Summer 2016. 3. Autonomous – 2017. 4. Implement control – mid-2017.

“We have been impressed with the concepts being developed by ATC,” said Lash. “The first concept is electromechanical which has been around a long time in the railroad and mining industries. We are not sure why the concept hasn’t been adapted to agriculture. It appears to be more capital efficient, with less maintenance and lower operating costs.”

Lash continues, “The second concept is guidance which should be included on our tractor mid-summer 2016. GPS, simply put, isn’t reliable enough or precise enough. ATC’s laser and radio beams, if they perform as expected, solve both the reliability and precision issues.”

The third concept, autonomous operation, is expected to be installed in late 2016 or early 2017. “Autonomous provides the option of completely changing agriculture crop production in so many ways,” Lash says. “Autonomous is already here for the military and is being developed for automobiles. Why wouldn’t it work for crop production? It is just a matter of time before someone successfully implements the technology.”

ATC will publically release the autonomous functionality later this year.

“Through the sale of our drivetrain package, we’ve taken the first commercial steps in putting truly autonomous tractors (meaning no driver, not driver-assistance) into farmers' hands to help with their field work,” Schulz says. “While Tesla, Google and others are rapidly transforming the automotive market with electric and autonomous technology ATC is the first company to bring this technology to the farm.”

Goodbye cab?

ATC is the same company that designed Spirit, a cab-less autonomous tractor. The tractor is a prototype but served as the test platform for the eDrive and AutoDrive aftermarket kits. “It’s the same technology, just on a different platform,” Schulz says. He says marketing the technology in an aftermarket package first makes sense for buyers because it provides them with a tractor they can both drive or let loose autonomously.

ATC continues to work on Spirit and how to make the whole concept easier to digest.

“Spirit is a catalyst vehicle with no front or back. It can go in either direction,” Schulz says. “The beauty of that is that you can multitask in ways that you can’t do with traditional platform.”

“For example, you can have a front-mounted implement for mowing, a middle-mounted dryer, and a back-mounted baler all on one platform so that you can load, dry and bale alfalfa in one pass. You couldn’t do that with an existing tractor platform. Period. “

ATC continues to work on the design and says a market release date could come as early as 2017.

“We have not finished all the implement design work to make that a reality. Right now it is just a test platform.”

ATC posted a video in February of the system working in a field with a disk. The tractor was also featured on a Fargo news station, which you can watch here. You can read our full coverage of Spirit here.

For more information, contact: Autonomous Tractor Corporation, 4302 13th Avenue South, Fargo, North Dakota 58103, 701.429.3964, [email protected],

You can learn more about autoDrive and eDrive at these related links:


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