The control room at the new Khalifa Port in Abu Dhabi is so high-tech it is almost reminiscent of the bridge of the Enterprise from Star Trek - without the tight-fitting uniforms and the odd alien.
Saif Mohammed Al Mazrooei, the port's operations execution manager, stands in front a huge display made of 120 13-inch screens, surveying the health of the cranes in operation.
Rows of desks rise on platforms behind him with staff planning the loading and dispatching of 2,500 containers on a 366-metre MSC ship due in that night.
Khalifa Port is the most advanced automated terminal in the Middle East and Mr Al Mazrooei has a hand in all that goes on here. He is involved in all aspects of the operation - everything from loading to safety to programming the automated system to take the right containers off at the right time.
"An automated terminal has many advantages compared to the manual ports," he says. "It's really about less mistakes. There's less risk for safety mistakes or missing containers."
The space-age control room is the heart of the Dh26.2 billion (US$7.13bn) port, which aims to transform the Al Taweelah area of Abu Dhabi, about halfway between the capital and Dubai, into a sprawling galaxy of heavy industry.
Under Abu Dhabi's plans for the next 18 years, the Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi, or Kizad, will eventually be a 417-square kilometre industrial manufacturing hub. It will also contribute about 15 per cent to the non-oil economy of Abu Dhabi, which would equate to about $40bn.
The port is the first part of that vision and, in its first phase, can handle 2.5 million containers a year and 12 million tonnes of general cargo, while capacity is expected to swell to 15 million containers and 35 million tonnes of general cargo by 2030.
With nearly 1,000 containers already going through the port each day, The National went to take a look at complex port process.
Before a vessel even moors up to Khalifa Port, which is the size of about 400 football pitches, the control centre has already been meticulously planning the unloading and loading of its containers.
Mr Al Mazrooei stands over a screen with a map of the UAE coast and points out a MSC vessel moored in Jebel Ali and bound for Khalifa Port within hours. The map tracks the boat's 60km journey from port to port as it passes the Palm Jebel Ali.
Beside Mr Al Mazrooei, a team of planners examine A3 pieces of paper covered in more than 20 snapshots of the vessel's hull at different points. Each shot is full of hundreds of seemingly tiny containers, all with a unique number.
The 992 containers in green are bound for Abu Dhabi and the rest are to be left on the ship. A further 1,509 are set to be loaded on at Khalifa Port but each must be in the right place in the right order, so the next port does not have to move containers around on the ship to get at those ready to be unloaded.
"The next port destination is very important," says Mr Al Mazrooei. "You cannot mix destinations together. It's a mutual agreement between ports, so when we are loading we are very port-wise." But how does the control room work out which containers move on and off when?
"Experience definitely plays a role in it," says Mr Al Mazrooei. "The statistics that we are getting from the system are important and we build parameters on them to get the best speed of turnover. The system will direct where to put the container based on the information."
The system considers three things: the types of containers; to where and to what company the container is bound; and the weight of the containers within the whole ship.
Loading and unloading the containers can change the vessel weight and its elevation in the water, which can cause problems for the cranes if they are not at the right height. So understanding the weight of the ship at any one time is crucial.
It takes about 30 hours to get every container off and on board. For a port layman, it all seems overwhelmingly complicated.
The container travels from the vessel on one of the six ship-to-shore cranes, which at Khalifa Port are among the biggest in the world.
On the side of each crane in huge white letters and numbers is the weight each unit can manage. For a single container, it is 50 tonnes, and 65 tonnnes for twin containers.
A container is moved from the ship and placed on the docks, which are split into two areas - water side and land side.
Although the process is automated, operational staff are on hand on a raised platform to check and monitor the process.
"You have to have someone there and operating," says Mr Al Mazrooei. "We oversee all of the areas."
It is not the busy, bustling, dirty scene you see on television programmes or period dramas. As just 50 to 60 people work at any one time in the whole port, there seems to be hardly a soul around and the docks are incredibly clean and tidy.
3 Shuttle process
Once placed on the docks, the container is then picked up by a manually-operated shuttle carrier, a bit like the bus you might sometimes take from a plane to the airport terminal building. The shuttle carrier takes the container from the dockside to the storing yard. There are 20 shuttle carriers in total, each one picking up about 10 containers an hour.
"If there's one doing 15 in an hour that's great," says Mr Al Mazrooei. "Even 10 an hour multiplied by 20 is a lot."
The shuttle carriers drop off the containers in a space under an automatic stacking crane (ATC). These cranes are much smaller than their giant ship-to-shore peers and are the guardians and cleaners of the container yard. People are not allowed near the cranes otherwise their sensors detect a presence and shut the machine down, needing to be manually reset.
Whenever the ATCs are not working on newly arrived containers, they do what Mr Al Mazrooei refers to as "housekeeping", moving containers to the edges of the yard in a particular order so they will be moved on to customers and other vessels in the most timely and efficient fashion.
"Normally, you would have to do it container by container, many people trying to figure out which container is which," he says.
5 Loading up
A veritable rainbow of lorries lines up on the land side of the port. There are red, yellow, green, white and blue versions of Mercedes, Volvo, Man and Iveco. Each one parks up in a bay and waits for its load.
In the control centre, three men sit in a front of three screens each, with joystick controllers, managing the whole process from the area known as the remote operating station (ROS).
The three screens look like a combination of a videogame and live cameras of the cranes in operation. The cranes picking up and dropping off containers move seamlessly and all are automated, apart from the moment the crane's claws are locked on to the container.
The three workers do this manually with their joysticks from the ROS and can do what it used to take more than 30 operators to achieve.
"They have 120 hours training before they can do it alone," explains Mr Al Mazrooei.
Each ROS operator works eight hours a day, compared with more than 30 manual operators working in three-hour shifts on a crane in a manual port.
6 On their way
Once a lorry is loaded, it drives out of the port through something called the optical container recognition (OCR) chamber, a small tunnel building containing 38 cameras at different angles. In the 50 metres it takes to reach the final barrier, the OCR gives the approval that the right lorry is with the right container so the driver can pass through.
It is the last check in the whole process before the load hits the road.
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