A Tiny Puerto Rican Port Is Turning Into a Test Lab for Trade Fluidity

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

(Bloomberg) — Scale AI, a California-based artificial-intelligence company, has found an oddity in Puerto Rico’s Port of Ponce — two idle ship-to-shore cranes.

Shipping ports are capital intensive projects designed to operate at full capacity, with lumbering cranes shuttling containers from ships to the port around the clock. 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 during the next 12 months to turn part of the Ponce facility into a “Smart Port Lab.” There, researchers plan to build hardware autonomy kits that can be integrated into those idle cranes. Scale will also develop autonomous inspection systems, computer-assisted surveillance systems, and digital-receipt registries that will track and monitor container movement.

“We have scoured the entire country to find a place that has this specific hardware and this specific area to build out,” said Michael Kratsios, Scale AI’s managing director. “Ponce is a diamond in the rough. It is the one place in the United States where we can do this.”

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

Hurricane Maria in 2017, damaging earthquakes in 2020 and Hurricane Fiona in 2022 also impacted the installations. While the port handles about 125 bulk cargo ships and a handful of cruises a year, it doesn’t receive container ships. This is despite having a container yard with 524,000 spots and three docks that can accommodate Panamax ships, which can usually carry up to 4,500 containers. 

“The integration of digital and artificial-intelligence solutions will be key for the creation of jobs and economic development in the south of Puerto Rico,” Governor Pedro Pierluisi said in a statement. “The Smart Port Lab is another example of investments that are betting on Puerto Rico’s sophisticated business ecosystem as an innovation leader in the Caribbean.”

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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.

Scale AI, founded in 2016, specializes in providing data infrastructure for artificial-intelligence applications. Backed by the Founders Fund, Accel, and Tiger Global Management, the company had a valuation of $7.3 billion in 2021, according to its website.

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Scale’s involvement will shine a spotlight on the port as it tries to drum up business, said Hector Agosto, executive director of the Ponce Port Authority. 

“This should be super interesting for us and give us the chance to project ourselves on the international stage,” he said. “Whether what they’re doing will work or not, I can’t give you an opinion, but we want to be part of the future of maritime navigation and transportation.”

(Updates to add a comment from Governor Pedro Pierluisi in the seventh paragraph. A previous version corrected Michael Kratsios’s title to managing director in the fourth paragraph.)

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