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Mikkel Pates, Forum Communications Co., Published March 22 2012

Inventor-entrepreneur touting new tractor that can follow combine, eventually drive itself

MOORHEAD – If you ever imagined what the future of agriculture looks like – driverless tractors crawling across the vast Red River Valley farming landscape – then meet Terry M. Anderson.

He says he’s going to make it happen in 2012 and 2013.

Anderson, 69, whose official address is Spearfish, S.D., has tested a half-scale model of such a tractor near a second home in Texas, and he has teams of experts working on the machine in St. Michael, Minn., near Minneapolis.

He expects to build the tractors in the Fargo area and even have two full-scale prototypes on display at the Big Iron farm show Sept. 11-13 at the Red River Valley Fairgrounds in West Fargo.

Initially, the tractors will be primarily for tillage. They will have “follow-me” technology, to trail behind a lead vehicle between fields, and then follow another tractor, “just like a hired hand would.”

“One farmer told me that when he’s driving a combine, all he can think about is, ‘If the weather holds so I can get my tilling done,’ Anderson says. “Why not have a tractor that can follow his combine? We can do that. While he’s combining, he’s tilling. I can see single farmers, today, handle several thousand acres of property with this product.”

Eventually, they’ll be guided by an Area Positioning System. This will allow the tractor to work on its own after the farmer sets positioning beacons and proscribes parts of the field that should be avoided.

Anderson has a name for his tractor – Spirit. The standard color is “metallic gold,” but he says he’ll paint it any color a customer wants.

One advantage of the Spirit is that it’s “right-sized,” Anderson says.

The tractor is designed to be 102 inches wide because that’s the legal width on the highway. Farmers tell Anderson tractors and implements are getting “entirely too big” because they can’t get under bridges or move down the road without hitting mailboxes or running motorists off the road.

Anderson has roots in North Dakota and the Red River Valley. His grandfather came from Norway in 1878 and settled and farmed in Hatton, N.D., where his father was born in 1916. The family moved to Roseau County, Minn., in 1917.

Anderson’s father sold the farm in 1956 and moved to Hopkins, Minn., a western suburb of Minneapolis. He served in the Air Force for four years in communications, and then went to work as an electrician for his father in 1964. After that, he worked for a consulting engineering firm designing electrical systems in buildings, and then for a company that built control systems for material-handling systems.

Anderson spent the bulk of his career in Minnetonka, Minn., where he founded Automation Research Group, and seven other companies from 1965 to 1986.

“I never was a CEO of any of my companies because that was not my strong suit,” Anderson says. “My strong suit was the technology.

Anderson started to retire in 1996 and retired completely in 1999, and started traveling back to the Greenbush area more often.

On one of those trips, he was watching his first cousin, Byron Eeg, unload a new tractor at his Roseau County farm. “I looked at that thing and thought, that’s a pretty fancy tractor,” Anderson recalls. Eeg suggested to Anderson that with all of his experience, maybe he could design a cheaper tractor.

“That’s what started me thinking about it,” Anderson says. “I thought, ‘Gee whiz, tractors today are not improving functionally as much as they’re just growing.’ ”

Anderson says a production model of the Spirit will be built before July 1 in St. Michael, followed by 25 more in 2013. “After that, the production models will be built close to Fargo.”

Anderson’s company filed papers with the North Dakota Secretary of State’s Office on Jan. 10 as Autonomous Tractor Co. LLC. It was dissolved and newly filed Jan. 18 as Autonomous Tractor Corp. with Stuart Larson, a Hillsboro, N.D., attorney, as its registered agent. The company’s prospectus is being refined by an underwriter working its prospectus for potential investments, says James M. Anderson (no relation), one of the founders, who is the primary owner of Northwestern Bank in Dilworth.

Mikkel Pates writes for AgWeek.

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