A Visit With The Autonomous Tractor Co. Developers, A Video Of A Short ‘demonstration’

It is difficult to say what the future is for a machine that was called the “Spirit” from the Autonomous Tractor Co. I have been writing about it occasionally since March 2012 and recently went to the company’s research and development center in a leased shop outside of St. Michael, Minn. It’s just off Exit 205 on Interstate Highway 94, a few miles east of Albertville (famously home to the outlet discount clothing mall). (Agweek magazine cover story, July 1, 2013.)

Terry M. Anderson is cordial to Agweek. He is building a machine that he thinks could revolutionize agriculture – driverless power, used to move equipment through fields, doing planting, tilling, even combining with robotic precision. He acknowledges that one of the challenges for the equipment is to replicate how human beings can see ahead and anticipate problems before the machines get to them.

Anderson has yet to demonstrate much about how the equipment actually works. Wet weather and problems with the machine ripping into a heat-softened parking lot nixed the demonstration for Agweek. These are all realities that every farmer has dealt with.

Anderson brought the machine to Big Iron in September 2012 in West Fargo. He was able to show it only as a static, indoor exhibit. It came into the exhibit early on a Sunday and left in the evening of the last day, unobserved.

It appears he’s planning to take the machine to the Wright County, Minn., fair, again as a static exhibit. Fair official told Agweek he was happy to have the machine there. This time Anderson also will be bringing a 400-bushel “grain transport,” that he’s building.

It is unclear whether his machines will be available for the next Big Iron, which is Sept. 10-12, 2013.

I know that there were those who thought the machine got too much publicity last year, considering there was no evidence it could do – anything. One person connected with the process asked me why — if it hasn’t shown that it can do what it says, or even move – why is Agweek interested?

My answer has been that it is because farmers want to see the future. I remember looking at Star Trek reruns in the 1970s, thinking of such things as transporters, doors that opened and shut as a person approached and passed through. Captain Kirk and friends used “communicators” and hand-held devices that answered questions and contacted the people back on the ship.

Hasn’t much of that come to pass?

Anderson’s efforts seem a bit like that. He’s working on autonomous implements and is even starting with  the basis of remote-controlled “drones.” These drones would do reconnaissance on fields for weeds and other problems, communicate with “Big Bird” spray drones to spot-spray where necessary. All the farmer would do is tend the machines.

Far-fetched? Certainly.

Impossible? I won’t make a judgment, in part because I’m not an equipment expert and in part because I’m a skeptic by trade. One thing that interests me is that I don’t see any experienced agricultural implement and equipment makers in this enterprise. They may need some out-of-the-box thinking, but then Anderson might benefit from their experience.