Scientific and technological developments, especially in the usage of drone and robotic technology, will allow Sime Darby Plantation Bhd (SDP) to remain operationally efficient, sustainable and competitive. Pix courtesy of Sime Darby Plantation.

KUALA LUMPUR: Scientific and technological developments, especially in the usage of drone and robotic technology, will allow Sime Darby Plantation Bhd (SDP) to remain operationally efficient, sustainable and competitive.

“We have been using drone technology in our plantations for over four years. Our aim is to enhance the integrity of information collected through the use of drones and other digital technologies, while minimising the need for manpower, whenever feasible,” an SDP spokesperson told the New Straits Times.

The spokesperson said the palm oil industry is a labour-intensive industry, hence manual workers are still highly needed.

“However, we believe it may be possible to extend the capabilities of technology to replace some manual labour.

“One such example is the use of drones to collect real-time imaging that goes beyond current labour capabilities,” he added.

SDP is currently using drones in its operations to enable the mapping of its plantations, providing details on terrain, boundaries, roads, water flow as well as to conduct palm census through external vendors.

“Drones are especially useful in monitoring trials, including field condition and palm growth. Drones, combined with other technologies including internet of thing (IoT) sensors, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, as well as a highly trained workforce, can help develop insights to help manage resources, identify issues such as pest infestations and diseases early, and increase research capabilities to help improve yield,” he said.

The company also uses the latest robotised lab analysis equipment in both commercial analytical and genetic testing labs.

“These labs have helped us to become one of the first companies in the world to successfully sequence, assemble and annotate the oil palm genome, which has led to our success in developing GenomeSelect - a new oil palm breed developed through genomic selection and prediction process,” he said.

GenomeSelect has the potential to deliver oil yield improvements of up to 15 per cent as it allow the company to produce significantly higher oil yields equivalent to 50,000ha of new land, without having to clear more land.

Another plantation player, IJM Plantations Bhd, is pessimistic on the utilisation of drone and robotics technology.

Chief financial officer and executive director Puru Kumaran said drone has limited usage of application in the oil palm estates.

“It (drone) cannot do the work that we need to be done, particularly harvesting. It is the biggest task we have in the oil palm estate. There is no drone that can do harvesting for us,” he said.

With limited application, he said drone is only capable of doing an aerial survey and checking plantation area.

“But that does not occupy too much of labour as the work can be done by local skilled workforce.

“We will use drone to get better information or statistically information but all that does not reduce our labour usage because the drone is not used for harvesting activity,” he said.

The company has about 2,500-3,000 workers with 12 drones in operational at both estates in Sabah and Indonesia with over 60,000 hectares.