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ATC Finalizes First eDrive Retrofit in Step Toward Achieving True Tractor Autonomy

March 3, 2016

The reality of the driverless tractor just got one step closer for Autonomous Tractor Corporation (ATC), the Minnesota-based company that’s transforming tractors into efficient farm bots.

ATC, which is currently raising up to $5 million on AgFunder, has nearly completed the first retrofit of a tractor with its commercial product eDrive — a diesel-electric system that replaces old mechanical drivetrains with electric motors. “The first issue to building an autonomous tractor is that you really want to put the navigation and control technology on top of an electric drivetrain, and that’s what we’re doing with eDrive,” said Kraig Schulz, CEO of ATC. “Think of it as a Tesla – but it weighs 40,000 lbs and pulls implements through the field.”

The company is finalizing tests and making refinements on the machine at its facility in Minnesota and will be imminently delivering it to its first customer FamilyFarms Group, a family farming organization in the Midwest, according to Schulz. The company gave AgFunderNews a sneak peak of the machine as it finalizes testing. Check out a video of the tractor here.

eDrive is sold as a kit which can be installed onto existing machinery as an after-market product. With eDrive, ATC aims to create a dual-purpose machine: one that offers the benefits of a manually driven electric vehicle with the promise of becoming an autonomous vehicle in the coming months. And by focusing on after-market products, the company strategically sidesteps many commercial issues that ag tech start-ups face, including the cost of having to build entirely new equipment from the ground up as well as access to distribution.

“There are over 500,000 used tractors out there between 100 and 400hp,” said Schulz. “That’s a near limitless supply of iron. Working with existing dealers to conduct the installs on these tractors gives us incredible scalability in a way that wouldn’t be possible if we had to produce our own tractors from the ground up. This has really helped us to meet our design objective of being able to provide a “new” tractor for half the cost of a conventional one.”

Further, by converting to electric drives, ATC is also setting machinery up for the next generation of power sources; batteries, hydrogen, ammonia, solar, and so on. “That is pretty hard for mechanical drives to do,” says Schulz. “We realized pretty early on that frames are frames and wheels are wheels. If we just focused on the real innovative parts, like the drivetrain, we — and farmers — could do a whole lot more with less.”

Farmer responses to eDrive, which offers 25 percent greater fuel efficiency, lower cost, and significantly simpler repairs, have been overwhelmingly positive, evidenced by the company’s current log of back orders for the kits. “Different farmers like different things about it — simplicity, fuel efficiency, price, durability — and the increased freedom around maintenance and repairs it gives them,” explains Schulz.

Farmers like the concept so much that ATC has won a Farm Industry News FinOvation Award twice, most recently last month. These awards are based on reader interest in certain technologies and previosu awardees include Precision Planting, which was really acquired by John Deere from Monsanto,  the publication’s FinOvation Awards.

ATC has so far entered into agreements with four dealers in the US and Canada as distributors globally are anxious to get their hands on eDrive kits.

“Without really any marketing, we have a list of over 60 individuals and dealers who are asking us for units,” says Schulz. “I get calls from new prospects almost every day. No one doubts the market potential. It’s all about execution on the technology and scaling up from here.” According to ATC, the potential market value for eDrive retrofit kits is around $29 billion.

Packaging the technology into retrofit kits was also a strategic marketing decision. “First, farmers do not want to be kicked out of the cab; they want to be eased out,” according to Schulz. “Putting our technology on existing tractors allows us to help farmers get comfortable with the technology in steps, from manual diesel-electric systems to ultimately having the tractor drive itself.”

Second, it opens up distribution channels that would not be available to the company if they were producing a complete tractor. 

“This allows us to utilize the countless number of tractor dealerships throughout the nation and around the world, and they seem eager to get on board.  We complete the first retrofit for our partner dealers, and the dealer takes care of sales, installation and support for each subsequent retrofit. They get a demo unit and a reference platform to help them more easily undertake the retrofitting of similar units.”

With eDrive’s debut successfully underway, ATC will now focus on building the autonomous capabilities on top of it. And its autonomous hardware technology, AutoDrive, is set for release later this year.

AutoDrive seeks to overcome some of the challenges that today’s technology presents, including positioning data that simply isn’t reliable, accurate or repeatable enough for truly driverless operations. The lack of security in GPS communications could allow hackers to take control of a GPS-based vehicle. Designed for tractors retrofitted with the eDrive, the new product will do this using laser and radio navigation technology.

“We tested the technology all last summer. We know it’s doable,” says Schulz. “We expect to start releasing the navigation part of it later this year and then add in more functionality like safety and implement management in the subsequent months, realistically looking at 2017 for the first truly autonomous units to be out in the market.”

Achieving true autonomy will take time, and a number of different steps as tractors gradually take over more and more of a farmer’s activities in the cab. Modifying tractors with electronic drives through eDrive represents a first and foundational step in ATC’s journey toward autonomy.

So what does a fully autonomous vehicle require? To assess this quandary, Schulz looks at all the functions that the driver performs and considers the feasibility of turning over those tasks to a computer.

“The driver performs steering and safety. It’s up to the driver to stop when the engine gets too hot or if something breaks. If you get stuck the tractor has to know how to ‘unstuck’ itself,” says Schulz. “It’s the farmer’s experience of being a farmer that you have to replicate. Understanding patterns, knowing to avoid certain areas that are too soft, etc. If you cannot replicate that, including the ability to respond to changes and unpredictable situations, you are still not autonomous.”

ATC is turning to artificial intelligence to overcome these challenges, researching and developing ways to teach a computer to learn what a farmer is doing as he or she is doing it. This is another benefit of the step-by-step approach as it allows the technology to learn directly from the farmer as he is performing key tasks while also having the added benefit of easing farmers into a new way of operation.

Some companies have already marketed tractors as autonomous devices, but Schulz suggests that moniker may be misapplied. “If you still have to have someone in the cab to provide for safety, occasional steering and implement control, it doesn’t really seem to meet the test of autonomous operations. That’s like calling cruise control in a car autonomous,” he says.

So when can farmers anticipate getting their hands on a fully autonomous system? It’s still a promise at this point. Schulz estimates as soon as 2017. “Eventually, the farmer will step out of the cab, and the tractor will know enough.”

While farmers may have to wait a bit longer for a completely autonomous tractor, Schulz sees plenty of market demand for the individual technologies it will take to get there.

“There are significant uses for these pieces today. I have farmers call me almost every day with new ideas for how they could use eDrive in ways I hadn’t even thought of — self-propelled planters and sprayers using eDrive? No — I hadn’t gotten that far in my thinking. But the users are pulling us into more and more applications that are essentially plug-and-play every day.  There are a huge number of things they want that we can do today even if it isn’t fully autonomous yet.”

To find out more about ATC, go to the company’s profile on AgFunder.

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