Editor’s note: On October 2, ATC launched a fundraising campaign on AgFunder to raise money from accredited investors. View details on the investment opportunity here. A replay of the investor webinar with CEO Kraig Schulz can be viewed here.
Wouldn’t farm life be easier if tractors could traverse fields and do all the dirty work on their own? With the help of Autonomous Tractor Corporation (ATC), such a dream is becoming a reality.
As its name suggests, the Minnesota-based company is transforming the cumbersome modern tractors that farmers own into more efficient farm bots. And to do so, they’ve had to rethink farm vehicles from the ground up.
ATC’s CEO Kraig Schulz says a design overhaul this significant hasn’t happened since the turn of the century, when tractors shifted from steam to combustion engines.
“If you look at tractor models over the years, they’ve become bigger — growing from 40 horsepower to 400 or more. But they’re a fortune to buy and maintain, and they are simply too big to be practical at this point,” Schulz said. “I don’t hear a lot of love coming from farmers about their tractors. Maintenance, transport, maneuverability, fuel economy, ground compaction the list of fundamental needs that modern tractors do not adequately address is amazingly long.”
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Schulz explained that cost of ownership and labor are core to many significant on-farm challenges. New tractors don’t come cheap (we’re talking $150,000 to upwards of $750,000), and that’s before maintenance and repair work. Over the life of a tractor, repair costs can easily approach or exceed the initial purchase price. Since large tractors today take highly specialized equipment to repair, farmers typically cannot fix their own tractors and rely on costly dealer repairs. Downtime during crucial planting or harvest times can be extended as they wait for dealers to fix the unit. This disruption in ability to operate machinery at critical times is often more costly in lost yield to farmers than the cost of repairs.
With eDrive — one of ATC’s products and the only diesel-electric drivetrain for tractors — ATC aims to solve many of the cost of ownership issues. However, farmers face yet another great challenge today — fewer people are working on farms. USDA data show a nationwide decline in hired farm workers over the last century; some sources cite tight immigration laws, urbanization, low wages, and an aging workforce as reasons for increasing labor shortages. Simply put, fewer and fewer qualified hands are available to operate machinery today.
Ultimately, the solution to this is autonomy — tractors that can drive all by themselves, no driver required. Current auto-steer systems allow farmers to drive largely on autopilot, but the technology has hit a practical wall. As Schulz notes, GPS-based systems aren’t precise or reliable enough to keep up with evolving ag practices like no-till or mechanical cultivation, and they certainly cannot replace the driver completely. That last leap from driver-assist to no driver, is no small feat.
In 2012, after a decade of research and development, Schulz and co-founder Terry Anderson founded ATC to remedy these longstanding problems. Schulz and Anderson are no strangers to these challenges. Schulz grew up in Minnesota and earned an MS from the School of Agriculture at the University of Arizona. A former partner at Ernst and Young, he spent four years directly working with agriculture communities in Mali, West Africa. Anderson grew up on a Minnesota grain farm and spent several decades as a serial tech entrepreneur before he sold Ancor Communications, a manufacturer of fiber channel network products for computers, in 2000 for $2 billion.
Perhaps taking a nod from Google and Tesla, they have developed what is the only diesel-electric drivetrain for tractors. In parallel, they designed a laser-radio navigation system that addresses the limitations in today’s GPS-based systems for driver assistance. The two patented products —eDrive and AutoDrive — will initially be sold in the after-market as retrofits.
This is an important point. ATC isn’t aiming to compete directly with equipment manufacturers like Deere or Case IH in building equipment. Rather, the company specializes in system design, collaborating with 3rd party manufacturers for most of its equipment needs, and with dealers for sales, installation, and customer support.
ATC’s eDrive product is the diesel-electric drivetrain platform. By replacing the transmission, differential, and axles with simplified wheel motors—ranging from five to 125 horsepower—ATC has created a system that’s easier to manage with sensors and software. Importantly, eDrive tractors are more fuel efficient than traditional tractors and are significantly easier to maintain and repair. There are essentially only two components to the tractor after eDrive is installed – a diesel generator set and the wheel motors – and either one can be swapped out in less than 2 hours with basic equipment found on any farm. The company asserts farmers can expect to save around 50 percent in total ownership costs, with a payback period of three to four years.
ATC’s AutoDrive combines a proprietary, patented Laser-Radio Navigation System (LRNS) with AI software for autonomous operations in the field. Using the AutoDrive management system, vehicles “learn” their way around fields after a preliminary run with the farmer in the cab. Farmers can then freely switch from manual to autonomous steering and let the tractor complete the field work independently. ATC’s guidance system relies on proprietary laser and radio systems to navigate fields and remain within boundaries, while broad-spectrum sonar pulses help the vehicle avoid obstacles from 30 feet away. If a tractor loses its sense of position, identifies a problem in the engine, implements or motors, or if sensors notice a power line or stray barnyard critter in its path, the failsafe stopping mechanism kicks in, ceasing operations instantly.
Schulz says the machines react immediately, much faster than humans normally would, and the mechanical and electric brakes can stop on a dime. This significantly reduces the the risk of an accident. “You don’t want the cool new tractor plowing into grandma’s house or running over little Johnny,” he said. If operations stop for some reason, the tractor sends an SMS text to the farmer about the issue or even a photo of what is impeding its progress.
The eDrive technology is fully developed and will be shipping to ATC’s initial customers in late 2015. The AutoDrive hardware is slated to ship alongside eDrive, and the software will be ready for autonomous operations in Q2 2016.
Long term, ATC hopes to go one step further. It’s using the same technology to conceptualize the Spirit, a 100-400 horsepower cab-less vehicle. The Spirit will also be capable of multitasking in ways that today’s tractors simply can’t. The first Spirit vehicle design is a single-pass haying system that mows, dries and bales the hay in one pass. This would allow farmers to put up significantly higher quality hay at a much lower cost.
Schulz says the prototype—a robot consisting of blocky champagne-colored engines atop treaded rubber tracks—drew crowds when it debuted at the 2012 Big Iron Farm Show in Fargo. “Farmers just couldn’t believe what they were seeing,” he said. “It looks too good to be true.”
ATC will continue to develop the Spirit prototype over time to meet farmers’ needs and solve problems such as soil compaction and labor shortages. It’s first autonomous applications will likely be haying, tillage, spraying, and grain hauling.
FEATURED IMAGE: The Spirit/Mike Krivit