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Robots take up dirtiest jobs in Malaysia’s palm plantations crippled by labour shortage

A drone buzzes between trees on a humid Malaysian morning, monitoring the oil palm fruits as they ripen. Self-driving trucks rumble over the vast plantation’s uneven ground, laying fertiliser and picking up the densely packed harvested bunches.

These are just some of the robots the Southeast Asian nation’s top palm growers hope will take over the sector’s most difficult and dirty jobs, plugging chronic worker shortages that have disrupted supplies of the world’s most-consumed edible oil.

“To depend on foreign workers for all these key tasks is actually putting this industry at a very high risk,” Helmy said. “This is why we have to take this plunge. We really have to place these bets.”

Perfecting the robots and deploying them at a commercially viable scale will take years, even as firms pour millions into developing such technology and retraining their staff to use it. But producers are pressing ahead.

The plantation workforce in Malaysia – the world’s No 2 palm oil producer – was hollowed out during the pandemic, when border restrictions meant companies could not bring in the foreign workers they so heavily rely on. It was the country’s worst-ever worker shortage and palm oil production plummeted, pushing prices to record highs. The industry lost billions.

SD Guthrie learned its lesson. Where possible, the firm has started using machines to take over non-harvesting jobs like spraying pesticide or monitoring fruit and yields. Where the industry average is currently for one worker to maintain 8-10 hectares of land, the company wants to boost that to about 17 hectares per worker with the aid of automation.

The company’s investment into robots is set to reach 100 million ringgit (US$21.2 million) – or about half its research and