Tiny Puerto Rican port gets new life as ‘smart’ trade flow test lab

By Jim Wyss (Bloomberg) —

Scale AI, a California-based artificial intelligence company, has found an oddity in the Port of Ponce, Puerto Rico — two decommissioned ship-to-shore cranes.

Shipping ports are capital-intensive projects designed to operate at full capacity, with heavy-duty cranes moving containers from ships to port 24 hours a day. The idea of ​​slowing down operations enough to do research and development is usually out of the question.

But on Thursday, Scale will announce plans to invest $2 million over the next 12 months to convert part of the Ponce facility into a “smart port lab.” Researchers there plan to build hardware autonomy kits that can be integrated into these idle cranes. Scale will also develop autonomous inspection systems, computerized surveillance systems and digital receiving registers that will track and monitor container movement.

“We scoured the country to find a place that had this specific hardware and area to build out,” said Michael Kratsios, Managing Director of Scale AI. “Ponce is a diamond in the rough. It’s the only place in the United States where we can do that.”

The news is a shot in the arm for the Port of Ponce, which serves Puerto Rico’s second largest city and is located on its southern shore. The government bought the two ZPMC cranes in 2009 for a reported $22.7 millionbut they haven’t run in at least five years, port officials said.

Hurricane Maria in 2017, devastating earthquakes in 2020 and Hurricane Fiona in 2022 also impacted installations. While the port handles about 125 bulk carriers and a handful of cruises a year, it doesn’t receive any container ships. This is despite a 524,000-seat container warehouse and three docks capable of accommodating panamax ships, which can normally carry up to 4,500 containers.

“The integration of digital and artificial intelligence solutions will be key to job creation and economic development in southern Puerto Rico,” Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said in a statement. “The Smart Port Lab is another example of investments that leverage Puerto Rico’s sophisticated business ecosystem as the innovation leader in the Caribbean.”

With the new project, Scale AI intends “to bring global port operators from around the world to see and feel what a future smart port can look like,” Kratsios said.

Founded in 2016, Scale AI specializes in providing data infrastructure for artificial intelligence applications. Backed by Founders Fund, Accel and Tiger Global Management, the company was valued at $7.3 billion in 2021, according to its website.

Scale’s involvement will put the port in the spotlight as it seeks to boost business, said Hector Agosto, executive director of the Ponce Port Authority.

“That should be super interesting for us and give us the chance to present ourselves on the international stage,” he said. “Whether what they’re doing will work or not I can’t tell you, but we want to be part of the future of shipping and maritime transport.”

© 2023 Bloomberg LP

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