Malaysia’s palm planters eye robots, drones to combat labour crunch (Reuters)

YONG PENG, Malaysia, Oct 7 (Reuters) – Malaysian research student Haziq Ramli wore an outfit resembling a light jetpack, with poles strapped to his biceps, to wield a long pole that clipped the sharp fronds and heavy bunches of fruit from oil palm trees nearly twice his height.

Working on a three-acre (1.2-hectare) family estate, he was part of a team trying to perfect the gadget, called a wearable exoskeleton, that promises to reduce the need for labourers to manipulate the poles, which can weigh as much as 8 kg (18 lbs).

“My arms are supported when I’m holding the pole, I feel less strain and fatigue,” said Haziq, who wore sneakers and spectacles.

Plantation firms in the world’s second biggest producer of palm oil are stepping up mechanisation to stem losses running into billions of dollars as fruit goes unharvested during their worst labour shortage yet.

“To harvest 10 tonnes of palm fruits a month, we need two workers,” said estate owner Hamidon Salleh.

Hamidon, who is also an engineer, said he and his colleagues at Malaysia’s University of Technology (UTM) were working with top producer Sime Darby Plantation (SIPL.KL) to test the gadget.

“With this exoskeleton, one harvester can achieve 10 tonnes on his own,” he added. “We can do the same amount of work with fewer workers.”

Peers of Sime Darby, such as IOI Corp (IOIB.KL), Boustead Plantations and FGV Holdings (FGVH.KL) are stepping up use of drones to spray crops with fertiliser and pesticide, map estate holdings and monitor the condition of trees.

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Mei Mei Chu - Reuters

7 October 2022