A Malaysian company has developed an automated tree cutter that could help ease the palm oil sector’s chronic labour shortage, Bloomberg reported on 14 December.

Palm oil production was set for five-year lows in Malaysia after the government shut borders and froze the hiring of foreign workers due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the report said.

The labour shortage has magnified the urgency for “intelligent” harvesting tools and automation in the sector, which has a low level of digitalisation compared to other industries, according to Girish Ramachandran, co-founder of IRGA, a precision farming solutions provider headquartered in Kuala Lumpur.

The technology could also reduce Malaysia’s reliance on foreign workers by making the sector more appealing to locals, he added.

Known as “HARVi”, the palm tree cutter offers digital intelligence and precision harvesting software.

Digital sensors could detect the location of the worker and the tree and also if the worker was cutting fruit or pruning fronds, Ramachandran said, with the data accessed through a mobile app.

“From the tree to the mill there is very, very low digitalisation. People are still running manual processes that are absurd,” he said.

The HARVi, which is due to be on sale by April, is lighter and easier to handle than the cutters currently used, according to Ramachandran and has the potential to tackle taller palm trees.